As Parents Age…

CateThere’s a moment in our lives, for all of us, when we realise that our parents have grown old, and after a lifetime of looking to them, now they are looking to us.  A lifetime of you being their ‘child’, now in some ways, that is reversed.  The only way you avoid this is if you completely cut off all contact with them some time before. Otherwise it’s a stage of our lives that is impossible to ignore. It is a time that can have enormous effect on both our mental health and theirs.  Everything has changed.  Now you realise that you’re finally ‘grown up’.

It wasn’t at all what I had expected.  As I had grown up I had thought about when my parents would be old, and I assumed because of the relationships I had with each of them, that it would turn out very differently.  But life has a way of turning things on their heads, changing the nature of relationships, and planting you in the spot you least expect.

That moment (and it’s often not just a single moment) started for me some years ago when my father turned up at my home one afternoon “for coffee”… or so he said.  He seemed a little subdued but I thought nothing of it, until about 30 minutes into his visit when he calmly asked me to ring for an ambulance.  I thought he was being dramatic, I couldn’t see any evidence of anything physically wrong.

My Dad was having a heart attack, it turned out, and not long after, with bells and sirens flashing he was whipped out of my house on a stretcher and taken to hospital.

My next task was to go to my parents’ house, explain to my mother what had happened, and then take her to the hospital to see what would happen next.  I had become the ‘grown up‘.  I don’t mean any disrespect to either of my parents; it was simply that now I had to put my needs behind theirs.  At the time, my mental health was already challenged by Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Depression, which brought with it difficulty in managing my emotions.  Because of some of the things I had done in my mental illness, my health had always been the priority.  Now it wasn’t, and to be honest that was really weird.  But none of that mattered now, as my mother and I searched the hospital and eventually found him in the Coronary Care Unit.

Dad was an ‘old man‘ on the bed, hooked up to everything.  He looked 20 years older and I wondered, was this really my Dad?  Even his hair seemed whiter. And it was standing out on end – more so than usual. He was a shadow of his former self.  We, as we watched, were very much sobered.

Life eventually went back to ‘normal’ but now I would always be concerned for my father’s health.  Even though he eventually got back on his feet, life continued on with in a modified manner with great stashes of medication.

If I thought that was ‘the moment’ I had more to come.  Several years later (2011) a major earthquake struck and my parents completely lost their home.  I was there in their house, when the quake struck.  It was the sixth floor of a seven floor apartment building.  That building and its contents (including us) were tossed and thrown in a way that had me think the world was ending.  I watched my father being thrown across the room, and my mother trying to grip onto the chair that she was fortunately sitting in. My parents were never allowed back in that building.

Mum and Dad both changed that day, seemingly irrevocably.  You can hardly be surprised.  They were alive, but it appeared they had lost everything.  Both of them were different people, as their mental (and physical) health faltered in the trauma.  Six weeks later my father died suddenly, and Mum (and the rest of the family) has one more loss to bear.  How much can one person lose?  To not bend to become a different person?  Just like my mental health in years past, had bent in order to keep me alive, so hers had to bend so she didn’t break, but live.

That was three years ago, and these days my mother lives alone, a few minutes’ drive from me.  Her memory is going, she’s confused, she had a hip operation last year and she simply isn’t the woman she used to be.  Perhaps her biggest battle is with being alone, after 53 years of marriage.

Mum has always been a very independent person.  I always admired that in her, even though as mother and daughter we seldom got on.  Now she fights to keep what independence she can.  As her mind deteriorates with age, she battles to hold onto who she is.  When she gets confused, she makes up stories.  She’s not lying, but instead just hanging on.  My guess is the story is simply what she believes is true. Sometimes her truth needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  Who knows what the real truth is?

As Mum declines I sometimes feel like I have become the ‘parent‘.  Of course, I’m not a parent in the true sense, nor am I her parent.  I don’t know what it is like to be a parent, but I know that our relationship has changed forever, and in many ways I have become her link to life.

I look for the mother I knew.  Some days she is there, and we struggle in our relationship with each other.  Other days, I feel sad because I want to reach in and pull out the mother I knew.  I don’t so much mind that we didn’t get on.  I just don’t want to lose anymore of that strong, independent, capable woman I was always (quietly) proud of.  That said, I know I will.  For now though, this is her ‘old age‘ and I take what comes.  Why?  Simply because in spite of our lifelong differences I know it is what my Dad would want.

What I have to do though, is remember what I need.  What I have to do is to protect my mental health as I care about hers.  What I have to do is encourage her to be who she is.  What I have to do is to love myself just as I think she has always loved me.  Her needs grow and I have no idea what will be next.  One day at a time.

PS.:  Yesterday I looked at my fifteen year old nephew (her grandson).  I remember being his age and thinking at that time that my parents were so old.  I realise now (that to him) I am the one who is so old.  To comprehend being as old as his grandma is beyond his youth.  The generations have changed while I wasn’t looking.

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” 

— Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray)

© Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


13 thoughts on “As Parents Age…

  1. Good post, and I am in a similar situation as you. My dad passed away four years ago, and my mom was left alone, after being married for 56 years. Now she is failing, more in body than in mind, but either way, it’s hard. You are so right that we need to take care of ourselves so we can care for those we love. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

    • Thanks Janet. I think it is easy for us to forget to care for ourselves. It’s certainly something I have to keep reminding myself, especially when the pressure goes on.

  2. Like Janet said! I really appreciate your sharing your story, Cate. As you know, these things are very real for me right now. Remembering to take care of one’s self becomes a real challenge when your mind is taken up with wondering how to best take care of your parents, and sometimes we are also caring for the younger generation as well! Sending hugs and strength xoxoxo

    • Thanks Cat. I know that it is a difficult topic regardless of which stance you took. Sometimes it amazes me because I know how close I came to going the direction you did. I don’t think there are any right answers though. We just do what is right for us at the time and then just hope…

      • Cate, I’m not out of the woods yet. A big part of me does feel that I should take responsibility. Fortunately, they are getting on quite well. They would like more help, but I think it’s better they do as much for themselves. However, there might come a day when I feel the time is right to move back near them again (500miles). I’m just hoping it is not in the near furture and will avoid it at all cost.

  3. Brilliant, and I can relate. Our parents become vulnerable, just like children are, and they need us. At this age (42), I have had to grow up and become an adult. Caring for my parents took me to that place. There is a cycle in life, I kinda knew that… but now… I have experienced and witnessed it… life is both beautiful, amazing and sometimes a little cruel.

    • “life is both beautiful, amazing and sometimes a little cruel” That is so true, and I think this is the time that we learn that. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I can so strongly relate to what you have posted. My dad is still mentally sharp, but has had several physical health problems (including a heart attack) in the past year and a half. my mom is in the early-ish stages of dementia. I feel like we are losing her in slow steps, and that I have been in mourning for her for about 3 1\/2 years.

    It is hard to start to play the parent role with parents. I’ve gone to Dr’s appointments with my dad, which feels ok, because I have a stronger knowledge of the human body than he does, and also he is hard of hearing so I can just make sure he catches what the practitioner says (or tell him later). But with my mom, it’s things like telling her what she needs to do, even giving her showers. and trying to act cheerful, so she can’t see how sad it makes me.

    • It’s so sad to watch our parents in that decline, isn’t it? I have this question in my head often of “where’s my mother gone?” except she’s right there in front of me. It’s certainly not something I was ever prepared for. I knew at some time my parents would grow old but I had no idea what that would mean for me. As you rightly say, it is a whole and sometimes long mourning process. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Hmmm I swear I thought I had already reply to this. I must be going nuts. Oh wait.. I AM already nuts.

    So yeah. I don’t have parents so I don’t have to deal with that. I don’t think I’d mind but I can see how it can be very daunting and extenuating for any one but specially for those of us with mental illness. I can see being easily decompensated by the weight and the sadness of seeing them lose their lives and their dignities little by little.

    The other side of the coin? I dread the day I become a burden for my children. I dread it.

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