I spent some quiet time with my mother at her nursing home late yesterday. It was shortly after dinner. Some of her fellow residents were watching television. Others were already being readied for bed.
My mother and I sat in the hallway by the door to her shared room; she, in her wheelchair, and me, in a chair facing her.
My mother doesn’t talk too much these days. Rather, there is a more vacant look, a handful of occasional words trying to express a thought either in English or Hungarian.
A time to reflect
So I have time to reflect, which is what I did last night—reflect on what I’ve learned from the process of caring for my father until he died two-and-a-half years ago, and my mother. I believe I’ve learned five big lessons, and perhaps you will relate to them.
1. Parents think we, their children, stay children no matter what our age.
The fact is that we are their children, and in their paradigm, we might be older, taller, balder, or whatever, but we are still their children. There is a sense of entitlement that comes with the relationship. They may back off, and may even be respectful of our lives and families, but they will seldom if ever refrain from trying to influence us. So I’ve learned to just take it in stride and listen with patience as from time to time my mother tells me firmly what I’m doing wrong. Now, I thank her and move on. It is the path of least resistance and makes my mother feel better.
2. Parents usually choose to remember being right and doing the right thing.
“I told you so” is a key phrase among many of our parents. It’s a catch-all, handy rejoinder when we relate any issue or incident touching our lives that may be a tad contentious. That phrase is used to remind us that they at some point made a point that, had we listened and acted on it, would have prevented something negative from happening. At this stage in their lives many of them want to remember being right. It’s important to their sense of achievement, self-respect and their deep desire to have been good parents.
3. Parents need to feel they’re independent and can retain their dignity.
My mother, realizing she’s knowing less and retreating into the recesses of her Alzheimer disease, still struggles to express her independence. I am often awed by her periodic expressions of what she likes and doesn’t like. She wants to be dressed nicely, and look good; she wants her hair done. She also wants to express her feelings and views, but that is becoming more difficult as her vocabulary constricts. I have learned to support that by filling in the gaps, finishing the thoughts, or whatever to make her feel she is a very real, important person, which she is, regardless of what she’s able to do or not do.
4. Parents, as they age, see the world as they wish.
My father, as he was nearing the end of his life while his mind was still crisp and astute, began expressing a perception of the world that perhaps worked half a century ago but wasn’t relevant at the moment. He was living in a world that was, not that is. I needed to understand, respect and work with that reality. My mother, meanwhile, is seeing her world through her own rose-coloured glasses. She sometimes sees snow in the summer. She hears noises only she can hear. She remembers meeting someone who died years ago and forgets who visited just hours ago. Her world if filled with grey zones and whiteouts, and often with images of once long ago. And I need to share those experiences and hold her hand and make her feel comfortable and safe.
Parents really do love us!
No matter what we think, remember or have to experience, the reality is that our parents actually and really do love us for what we are: their children. They may do things that drive us batty, but if we look at the scorecard of a lifetime, they will have wanted to do their best, even if they may not have achieved it all. Just look deeply into your aging parents’ eyes and you’ll see affection, concern, passion, and love. And there is nothing more we can ever ask for, or get. They may have done all sorts of things that anger us or please us. But our parents will have demonstrated a love for us that is impossible to ignore.
A juggling act
We all have this tough juggling act to do. It’s to balance our daily lives with the needs and challenges of our aging parents, wherever they are and whatever condition they’re in. We’d be wise to try and understand and respect their needs, and to do what we can to fulfill their late-in-life perceptions and dreams.
What we should remember is that our job is to simply bring them as much comfort and support as we can. To make their remaining lives as meaningful and rich as possible. This way they, and we, will hopefully feel a sense of accomplishment of a life well lived.