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Sharon Gregoire: The roles may evolve, but the parental order stands

  • Article by: SHARON GREGOIRE
  • December 24, 2010 - 5:46 PM

Commentary

I read the phrase again today. Someone wrote about being in a "role reversal" and about how they were now "parenting their parents."

I empathized and understood the intended meaning, yet I wanted to nudge them a step further in thinking about their caregiving.

The first time I heard that expression, I had small children and was facing my own parents' anger, fatigue, confusion, frustration and sadness in dealing with my father's Alzheimer's disease.

Many of the things I was doing for and with them at the time seemed similar to what I was doing for and with my children.

I probably even used the phrase myself at the time, trying to describe and understand my choices. I thought it was an interesting phrase.

But, deep down, somehow it didn't ring true.

I used to take my boys to Grandma's and Grandpa's for weekend visits. My sisters and I rotated care weekends to give Mom some relief and well-deserved, uninterrupted sleep.

We drove the hour to the small Minnesota town where my parents lived and would arrive in time for Friday-night dinner, which was usually a sandwich or other finger foods. Dad had trouble maneuvering a fork or knife.

He would always ask if I wanted some of his food. A habit resurfacing from the Depression years, his sisters told me.

After dinner he sometimes wanted to help clean up. But, of course, it was impossible to get anything done if he "helped," much as it was with my children.

I'd give him a broom and ask him to sweep the already clean floor, and he'd be happy to do so, until I told him to stop or he forgot what the broom was for.

As I'd help him get ready for bed, I had to orient him to his clothing and help him get started, or finish for him, reminding him to sit down so he wouldn't fall. He'd tell me what a nice lady I was to help him.

But when I would bring out the adult incontinence product, his face would fall, and I wanted to cry, thinking about the indignity.

During the night we had a baby monitor in Dad's room, and my boys and I would sleep in the basement bedroom. I could hear Dad's breathing, snoring and wandering on that monitor. If he got up, I knew it immediately and would go upstairs to help him go to the bathroom or just walk a bit with him until he calmed down.

One night, after I had finally coaxed him back to bed, I went downstairs and climbed into bed between my preschool boys. All was quiet except for the snoring on the monitor above my head, and the snoring from my left, and then my right, as my boys fell back to their own dreamland.

Everyone in the house was asleep except me.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream a lot back then.

But, of course, I didn't, as that would have disturbed many people, including me, and then I would have had to manage everyone's fears that the whole thing was falling apart.

I thought about how Mom did this alone during the week and I developed a new appreciation for her efforts -- not only in caring for Dad now, but also in how she cared for her many kids as we grew up. She deserved a good night's sleep.

The next day, just like my kids, Dad needed help with his shower and getting dressed. He needed his shoes tied and was attempting this by himself when my 6-year-old, mature beyond his years, offered his gallant assistance and bent down to tie Grandpa's shoe for him.

It is a picture I will always treasure.

All of what I have described was merely the framework for the day. Anyone could have done it.

True, I helped Dad understand his world while doing the same for my little ones, moment by moment. But throughout the day, the acts one might describe as "parenting" applied only to my sons.

Dad continued to be an adult who had already learned the lessons of childhood and did not need me to remind him. He knew right from wrong; he knew how to be respectful of others; he knew how to persevere in the face of a challenge, doing the best he could under the circumstances.

He was still my dad, and I was still his daughter. He was who he was destined to be, while my children and I were learning to become who we would be, by choosing to go with him on his difficult journey.

Dad did not have the skills either of us had hoped he would have at his age. But I believe he still deeply felt his connections to the people he loved and who loved him, even if he didn't remember their names.

And his parenting of me, his daughter, and the teaching of life lessons, continued until the day he died, from the elder to the younger, as it was meant to be.

I do not think we ever "parent our parents." We learn from them, every step of the way.

Sharon Gregoire, Minneapolis, is an occupational therapist and president of Therapy Solutions. She has written a short workbook for people with Alzheimer's disease in which they can record their hopes, dreams and preferences.

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