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As I walked away from the emergency room, I felt a heaviness for my friends who had just brought in their elderly father. They were rightly concerned about his health issues. But their dad wasn’t. In fact, he was angry that his adult children had insisted on admitting him to the hospital.
There he rested on the gurney, pouting because he wasn’t home. His lower lip was turned up, childlike, which enhanced the scowl on his face as he weakly waved me away.
It’s not easy parenting parents.
What my friends’ father was feeling is normal for the elderly in those situations. Agitated because they aren’t home, fearing what lies ahead - “Will I get to go home? Are they putting me away? Why are they doing this to me now?” - they often react in ways their adult children perceive as harsh and insensitive. And at the same time, the elderly parents frequently view their children as cold and uncaring.
Reversing parental roles isn’t easy. Being a caregiver for parents can take more and more time, which can put a strain on the caregiver’s family. Often there are unexpected financial commitments, further stressing the caregiver’s family. Then there is the emotional toll paid by caregivers: “I can’t stand to see mom and dad go down like this. Am I doing the right thing? I feel guilty about not wanting to take care of them all the time.”
It’s a growing problem in our society. As Jane Gross notes in her recently published book, A Bittersweet Season, never before have there been so many Americans over the age of 85, and never before have there been so many Americans in late middle-age - that burgeoning baby boomer generation - responsible for the health and well-being of their parents.
The dilemma I observed in my friends and their father, I now see on the horizon for my parents and me. This Father’s Day, I will be helping my two older brothers as we move Mom and Dad to a life care facility. Instead of the home they’ve known and the town they lived in for the past 58 years, they will be in another location and a different home - an independent living unit. In time, they can transition to assisted living or skilled nursing.
Because I live farther away from my parents than my two older brothers, they’ve taken on most of the responsibility for moving them. My oldest brother has taken care of administrative details for their move; my other brother and his wife, living in the same town as my parents, have taken on the herculean task of helping Mom and Dad wade through a mountain of stuff in their house as they get ready for the move next week and an estate auction next month.
I will be there for both events. It’s my turn.
Mom and I talk most every day, and I hear the repeated refrain, “I wish you were here.” Moving Mom and Dad will be emotional for them and me. No longer will they be in the town where I grew up. The landscape bounding our lives will never be the same. They will no longer be where they have always been.
But they will be where they are supposed to be.
On one of my daily early morning conversations with Dad - which always begins the same way, “Where are you and your buddies eating breakfast today?” and ends the same way, “Love ya Dad,” I told him about proofing one of my son’s research papers.
“He really didn’t need me,” I said. “It was fine just like it was. But I think it gives him a sense of security just to have me look at it. I guess he likes knowing I’m there.”
Then Dad told me something his dad, my granddad, said years ago. Granddad was in his late 70s and his dad, my great-granddad, was almost 100. (He lived to 104.) “Son,” Granddad said to my father, “no matter how old you are, and even when your dad can’t get around much like mine and is unable to do anything for you, there’s still some security in knowing your dad is still there.”
That’s something worth remembering this Father’s Day.
Mom and Dad won’t be where they were. But, they will be there, where they are supposed to be.
And there is some security in knowing that.
Editor’s note: Email David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., at email@example.com or visit his website, www.davidbwhitlock.com.