My mother was difficult my entire life.  She was a complicated woman who both nurtured me and damaged me with her “love”.  A woman who taught me many things and helped create the person I am today.  It took many years of therapy to sort through the maze of emotions surrounding my mother and to truly forgive her to the point of being able love her at the end of her life.  My feelings for her were not only as a daughter loves a mother, but they became something more universal. I loved her as one human being loves another who is suffering.  In forgiving, I was able to be present to her pain and to let go of trying to win her affection, praise and gratitude. I was there for her unselfishly.  I stopped going to the hardware store for bread and I understood the futility of seeking what would never be found.  I really understood that such searching is the root of all suffering.

As I watch my friends deal with aging parents, I feel called to share what I learned in those last months of her life.  As she descended into the depths of dementia and the mental illness that plagued her most of her life, I became an observer.  My first instinct was an old one, that of rescuer.  I had always taken care of my mother.  As young as four years old I got her cold washcloths and rubbed her neck and head when she had one of her recurring headaches.   I caught myself as an adult, however, and took a new tack and that made all the difference.

The roles reverse when we take care of aging parents. We become the parent and they become the sometimes obstinate child.  Some parents grow old gracefully, but I suspect those parents always carried such grace. Some, like my mother, just become more difficult at the end when the few filters they once had gradually disappear.  They refuse to accept reality and sometimes fight to the bitter end. As children, we can be caught in the crossfire.  It is important both for them and for ourselves to get out of the middle. We can rarely help anyone who has fallen in a hole if we are in the hole with them.  If we lift them out, we are only left behind.

My mother fell often in the last several years of her life.  Sometimes the falls were serious and those were the only ones I knew about for certain.  The rest she kept hidden.  She insisted on living independently and, although I knew she was no longer able to do so successfully, nothing I said would convince her otherwise.  She was still able to make decisions because she did not meet the legal standard of incompetence, yet she was making poor choices.   Like the parent of a small child, I had to watch her fail knowing ultimately there is no substitute for experience as a teacher.  It is hard…excruciatingly hard to watch, but she still had that right. I could not make those decisions for her and it was her path to learn the hard way.  Yes, she could have died as a result of her choices, but after watching a mother you love in the depths of dementia live out the last ten months of her life in a nursing home, you realize death is not the worst thing that happens to any of us.  Saving a physical life is not always the most compassionate choice.

She refused my help at every turn.  When we went anywhere and came to a curb or a step she emphatically refused my assistance.  I had to let go, let her fall and catch her on her way down which happened every time.  I could not stop her from trying and falling, but I could catch her and prevent injury.  That became my role in her life.  When I was not around she landed hard, but that was her best teacher. Any other interference on my part was futile.  Once I accepted that fact, I was able to help her in the only way available to me.  When she insisted that “she could do it herself,” I had to let her fail.  If she made demands on me that only enabled her delusions, I had to say “no.”

This is the time of life when we can easily become puppets.  A parent can be demanding of the inconsequential things and we jump to help because we are so thrilled to be asked.  We long to be useful and we hope it’s a gateway to being involved in the bigger decisions, but it’s not.  It’s the continuation of a pattern.  We become like a hamster on a wheel, running like mad and getting nowhere.  We fall in the hole and we are too exhausted to get out.  If we are still searching for love, approval, and appreciation, we are even more devastated.  Once again lost in the hardware store and no bread in sight, we add insatiable hunger to the mix of unrequited emotions.

So where does this leave us?  What can I share that will catch you when you fall or maybe prevent you from stumbling? Well, here goes:

  1. Death is not the worst thing that happens to us and can be a blessing. It is our ultimate fear, yet knowing this deep in our being releases us from hyper-responsibility for the life of an aging parent.  They are going to die no matter what we do to prevent it and sometimes it’s the kindest and most compassionate thing that can happen.
  2. We do not know what is best for another person, even our parents. When we think we do, it’s time to let go again.
  3. The only thing we can really do is to help relieve suffering where we can. Prevention is not usually an option even if the other person is willing. We can’t make them willing.
  4. Many times there are no good decisions to be made. Sometimes we just pick the least offensive one and let go.
  5. All we can offer a parent is unconditional love. That means we no longer expect anything in return. If we have not forgiven, now is the time to work on it.
  6. If we have not received what we needed from a parent at this point, we are never going to. Accept this fact. Nothing you do is going to change this reality and there is peace in acceptance.  Resistance is the root of all suffering. Make the hardware store and bread your constant mantra.
  7. If the parent lives long enough, there may come a time when we do have to take over the decision making process. You will know when this time comes and the only hazard is ignoring it when you know it.  We can only do our best to make sure our parent has food, shelter, and medical care. You will likely not be popular when this time comes.  Accept not being popular.  (Reread #4 and #6)
  8. No matter what, you have done the best you can. Accept that fact it and don’t live in regret.  Offer yourself the same compassion you give to others.
  9. Take frequent breaks. Schedule something fun that evokes laughter at least once a week.
  10. Spouses and significant others – be supportive, but don’t interfere. Only give feedback upon request.  This is very hard.  Accept that it is hard.
  11. Know that you are not alone in this struggle.  Reach out…there are many of us who have been there or who are there.  It makes a difference to talk about it and get perspective.
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