Jen Jeffrey: Caring For Our Parents

Monday, September 09, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey
Jen Jeffrey
Jen Jeffrey

Whenever I told people that I moved in with Mama because she didn’t want to be alone, I have had a few ladies say to me (with a sympathetic hand on my arm) “Oh, I could never live with my mother…”

At first, I didn’t understand that. How can someone feel that way? Mama and I have always been close and we have had so much fun together. She makes me laugh and she is my biggest fan in everything I do.

Knowing these ladies were not the selfish or unloving type, I tucked that thought in the back of my mind and wondered if I may feel the same way after a while.

Honestly? I do have days where I feel I have sacrificed my own independence to become ‘her baby’ and then other times just her companion, but overall I really wouldn’t change a thing.

I say this in jest, but with three married sisters - I was the one that ‘drew the short straw’ because I was single. All four of us have very busy lives and taking care of another person would be hard for any of us, but it made sense for me to be the one - I just had ‘me’. Also with making less income than my sisters, it was a win-win situation because I could save money.

When I needed to move in with her and Papa temporarily after my divorce, I had learned a lot about elderly people. For one thing – they age differently. Papa was spry and walked in the mall every day up until he turned 90. He drove anywhere he wanted up until he was 92. Now that I am back with just Mama, I find that she is a little different at her young age of 76. Her aches and pains are different and she has a totally different mentality.

It is hard to compare our parents with other elderly people because each person has their own belief system, their own coping mechanisms, and their own walk of life that causes them to think the way they do.

If it were just the two of us living together independently, it wouldn’t have been hard at all. Mama and I are great pals. But what we can’t always control is where an older person’s mind set is and where our mind set is to co-mingle in whatever circumstances you both are going through.

When I first lived here, Papa died soon after and Mama was in a state of grieving. I was also grieving my divorce. There needed to be understanding on both our parts and I feel that no matter what conflicts arose, we did pretty well getting through our adversities together.

The second time I came back to live with her, it seems she had gotten a little older – faster. Her mind was a little different. She forgot things that she normally wouldn’t and she became more afraid of things that she normally wouldn’t. I could tell she moved into another phase in aging. She felt insecure and everything was a big deal that didn’t used be for her.

We look to our parents to be that solid rock. They may have made mistakes, but they are still our parents and we know they love us no matter what. We looked to them for guidance as we became adults when we didn’t seem to have answers. They lived through everything we are living through now, even though the times have changed and we think they don’t understand things today.

But history repeats itself, and where we think we have more stress because of our fast-paced world, we have to remember that for them the world was moving pretty fast when they had their day in the sun, too.

We may hear our parents say, “Back in my day…” and they make things sound simpler. How could they know the stress we are under? The workload we have? There are pressures today that they just didn’t have. But when they were our age, even if it seems simpler in hindsight – it wasn’t back then.

I will never forget when I was a teenager and made my own money. The store I worked at sold microwaves and I wanted to get one for Mama. Not every household had one then so to Mama, it was something foreign coming in to change her way of life. “This thing is a computer!” she yelled when she saw how confusing it was. She had even said that she would much rather use the stove to cook. Mama learned to use the microwave and now would not consider not having one.

When you think back to the times when television first came out and the generation older than our parents balked at it, the younger, fresher generation welcomed it. We need to realize that we are still doing the same thing today. I am now the age my mother was when I was a young adult and my kids are now the cool ones who have the new-fangled gadgets that I only half-way understand. I think 20 years basically separates us all. In 20 years we will cross over to the next generation.

We go through our teens where we are trying to find our own way and then we are young adults and we think we know everything. Then when our kids grow up we realize how much we are like our parents and we tried so hard not to be like them. Our parents begin to lose a little of the solidarity we once leaned on and now they need to lean on us. It is a cycle.

What is hard for the middle-ager to understand when caring for their elderly parent is that our parents are not who they were – but neither are we. We sometimes treat the older generation as if whatever their concerns are isn’t a big deal. Maybe our adult children feel the same about us as we try still to be significant in this world. But after 40, we get forgetful too sometimes or we may not have our high school bodies anymore. We see facial lines coming on and we wonder how they all of a sudden just appeared, but we know that we are not quite ‘old’ yet.

Old.

What a dreadful word. None of us want to be old. Old, according to Webster’s dictionary, means ‘worn and of no use’. May we never call the elderly ‘old’. People my age realize that their trail-blazing days may soon be over and now our children are blazing new and improved trails.

We want to be involved in our adult children’s lives and our parents still want to be involved in ours. We finally ‘get life’… but for our parents… they are not getting life so much anymore. Where we have forgotten a few things here and there, our parents forget much more and much more often. I think we sometimes get frustrated trying to get them to understand something just because we expect them to understand a certain concept that they may have known all their lives, but now it will leave them at times.

I am reminded of my sons when they were little tykes. When I was having a conversation they pulled at my clothes beckoning, “Mama… Mama… Mama…” until I paid attention to them. I knew they were little and didn’t understand that they were being rude to interrupt and it was my job to teach them these things.

When our parents lose a little of their rational self, and every small thing seems important or the end of the world for them, it is hard to have the same patience we had with our children, because our parents are “our parents” and we counted on them to teach us. I think we middle-agers make the mistake of trying to “parent our parents” and treat them like we would have treated our children as we know we must use more patience and understanding now. We have to look over them asking us something that they have already asked us. Our small children did the same thing but that was okay because they were our children who needed to learn. Our parents’ already knew these things, so why was it so hard to understand? Is their mind gone – is it useless to try to re-teach them now?

We may have to bite our tongue when they go over their list of ailments each day and we think we will never be like that. “When I am old, I will never complain… I will still have my wits about me… I will stay in shape and not lose my agility…” Maybe some of us will do certain things differently than our parents when we get their age, but I have a feeling after our parents or gone we will understand what they were going through. It would be nice if we could just read a book on how to care for them or to listen to what they are telling us and then to never react to the little things that bother us. But we are human and we are still busy living our own lives, plus trying to help our parents live their last years the best they can.

I wanted so much for Mama to get into Silver Sneakers or a card-playing group of ladies and still have a social life. I wanted her to enjoy independence after taking care of people all her life and now she would get to do whatever she wants. What Mama wants is to watch the Waltons (several times a day) and to read her Christian romance books and to talk to her friends through emails and Facebook. At first I wanted to encourage her to ‘get out and do more’… to grab life! But that wasn’t Mama to begin with.

Mama’s life was a life of service to her children and her husband. She never got into going to social gatherings or any fitness group –  so why expect that of her now? My sisters and I have all encouraged her to stay active, eat right, get sleep… all the things that ‘are good for her’. We only want the best for her and we love her so much, but there have been times that she has felt ‘picked on’ when we try to help.

It sounds simple to us ‘if she would just listen. But I think it is we sisters who haven’t been listening. Mama is happy when she is around her daughters or grandchildren. It makes her day when she and I go to lunch. Recently, when my sister Angie and her husband rode over on their motorcycles, Jim rode Mama on the back of his Gold Wing. Not far – just enough for a little excitement for Mama. She enjoyed that, but it doesn’t mean she wants to join the “Golden Gold Wings”.

Mama appreciates being thought about. She enjoys her family spending time with her. Her grandchildren and children are all busy with their lives, but between us all - to pop in sometimes and spend time with her, makes her day. I live here, so I have to remember that when I am at home working that is not being with her. Mama loves when we go out on one of our lunch dates and drive around afterward. She loves when my sister Jill who lives across the way from Mama will bring over a meal that she cooked. She loves when my sister from Kentucky comes down to be with her and brings her a special Starbucks and Panera breakfast.

Mama doesn’t always want to do the things we have suggested to her that will ‘better her life’. She just wants to be included in our lives. She wants to be relevant. We don’t have to change her or try to add to her life with what she doesn’t necessarily want. I can only imagine how she feels when she realizes she forgot something and we laugh and chalk it up to old age… but in her mind, it isn’t funny. When an older person cannot use their mind like they once did, that has to be scary because you then have to depend on and trust others for your life.

I think it is very important to make our parents feel secure and let them know that we are there (even if we encourage their independence for as long as they can have it). Just to sit and talk about old times or watch a show they like with them. It may not be the show we would watch, but didn’t we watch Barney with our kids? I like to be dependable with my job and I don’t like if I don’t get done what I set out to do for the day. But I am thankful that I was blessed with the job that I have and work from home and schedule things accordingly with my life with Mama.

Sometimes, I feel it is the end of the world if I put work off ‘just to sit and talk’ with her or watch a show together - I think of what I could be getting done. But then I think of the big picture. “So what if I meet my goal”. My boss and his wife know what taking care of a parent is like. Meeting my goals are more for me and I might make it harder than what it actually is.

Sometimes, what we feel is crucial may be ‘modifiable’ more than we admit to our pride and what we think we hold together that will fall apart if we don’t do it.

Meeting my goals are important to me, but they are not as important as Mama feeling secure, loved and a part of my life. When she is no longer here on earth, I will not be thinking about how much time I wasted with her. Instead I will feel that I didn’t give her enough time. So what I can do now, I am honored to do. If I want to get a story in on one day and I don’t get it in until the next day because Mama and I spent more time together, how is that any different than when an interview gets canceled and I lose a story for the week? Life is uncertain. We can plan all we want and have our ideals, but as long as we do our best and are responsible, sometimes taking a breath and seeing what is really important right here in front of us, is the ‘purpose’ we all are looking for.

jen@jenjeffrey.com


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