Role Reversal - Becoming Your Parent's Guardian
It creeps in slowly on little cat's feet when it begins, the hesitation over making minor decisions. When our parents begin to seek help on the small issues they've handled with grace for as long as we can remember, it can be a surprising development.
Not long after leaving my parent's home to start a life of my own, I began to notice uncertainties developing; seeing a shift in the way things had always been. It seemed as if overnight I was asked for advice on minor things like how much rice to cook for the family gathering or how long it should boil. I reminded my mother that she had cooked for a family of five for many years. Why was the uncertainty starting now?
In some ways, being asked for advice from a parent was flattering. I presumed this was her way of giving me a voice in the matter or letting me know my value had increased now that I was grown. My opinions, at long last, had importance.
What I didn't know was that the tide had already begun to turn. The child was starting to become the parent.
Things went along smoothly for years as our new relationship began to emerge. I found myself becoming more of an equal to someone who had always represented authority, control and dominance. I was entering the age of awakening responsibility.
Mutual friends who've reached this point in their lives share the same discoveries of this new found responsibility that has grown with time. The same thing is happening to my long-time friend in Florida. From the days when we met back in our early twenties, survived wild and crazy adventures, disastrous marriages, radical career changes, we now find ourselves in the same boat, as caregivers to our aging parents.
We're the ones called upon to provide direction and advice.
Changes in Roles
This awesome responsibility is not to be taken lightly. It arrives with its own baggage, setbacks and joy. My best friend relayed the frustration that goes with the task of trying to convince her mother to use her supplemental oxygen like she is supposed to. Another challenge is trying to convince her to use her hearing aide. It gets frustrating to repeat one's self, or to be interrupted mid-sentence by someone who at a time in the past would have said, "Not now, Mother is speaking." But the shoe is on the other foot for each of us.
A Late-Life Career
A stay-at-home mom of the fifties, my mother began her mid-life career with seriously limited, practically non-existent employment experience. She had left nurse's training halfway through to get married in 1945. After thirty years of marriage, she came to live with me when her marriage ended. Completing some vocational training, she embarked on a new career as a nurse aide at the age of fifty.
Suddenly, I found myself giving out advice about dating and apartment hunting much as I had received in the long distant past. That was a new development, a venture into the reversal of roles.
Mom's new life as a single woman and sole provider would continue over the next thirty years. On her eightieth birthday, at long last, she officially retired from a second career as a Teacher's aide. Through her experience of taking a job outside the home, her skills and confidence developed along with an inner strength. She gained a sense of accomplishment and self-worth that had previously remained untapped.
Sunrise Sunset - Fiddler on the Roof
When Mom was hospitalized for an entire month I started handling her bills on her behalf. Although I'd been a co-signer on her checking account for years, I never really looked at her accounts until then. It was an eye opening experience.
Her growing forgetfulness had begun to take its toll with auto insurance premiums overlooked and checks stuffed in the wrong envelopes. Time has marched on and I continue to handle the bill paying with no complaint from Mom. She's glad to be rid of the statement balancing and all that financial stuff.
Driving in Dallas traffic is a challenge to even the most confident driver. I worried constantly about her driving abilities and safety when she was still driving in her eighties. Considering her diminished reflexes and increased fragility, it really wasn't safe. If you can, imagine the Dallas drivers, so considerate and kind, on the road with this tiny woman. Yikes.
When she turned over her car keys to me one day, voluntarily, stating she just didn't feel confident on the road anymore, I was much relieved. Not everyone acts logically when that time comes. The issue of when to stop driving can become a huge source of friction with aging parents whose reflexes have lost their edge.
Giving up driving is a reverse milestone of the day we turn sixteen and earn the option to get behind the wheel. It's a life-altering decision seriously limiting mobility and options, making one feel truly dependent, like a small child once again.
Our relationship has evolved, and yet we still manage to get by. Mom has a new role too: that of caregiver to her elder sister who, Lord willing, will turn ninety in April. What a joy to have her on our side of town living in Mom's home nearby. They share a small house, still managing to function independently in so many important ways, although home-bound by health, vision and hearing impairments. They make me proud.
Both of us have managed to survive my volatile years as a childless parent. I continue to be blessed with a loving relationship with a parent who forgives my shortcomings and frequent irritability. One thing remains certain in our relationship: It is the unshakable friendship of my Mom, my true friend. She is a blessing and reminds me in so many ways that I'm the lucky one.
© 2009 Peg Cole
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