By Matt Perry
It read like a typical online post about treating others with respect. But Emily Davenport shared it on Facebook as a reminder to herself.
To be more patient.
With herself. And with her mother.
Ever since her husband asked her aging mom to live with the family – an offer made without consulting Davenport – she’s struggled with the pressures of caring for an older adult just as her two teenage daughters were heading off to college.
The chain missive “Letter From A Mother to Her Daughter” offers a poignant reminder for a grown daughter to recall those long days spent raising a young and helpless girl.
“Remember, honey, I patiently taught you how to do many things like eating appropriately, getting dressed, combing your hair and dealing with life’s issues every day.”
The letter touches on common frustrations for caregivers who now support their frail parents: poor mobility, failing memory, faulty hearing, even struggles with new technology.
“If I occasionally lose track of what we’re talking about, give me the time to remember, and if I can’t, don’t be nervous, impatient or arrogant. Just know in your heart that the most important thing for me is to be with you.”
Yet for Davenport, caring for her opinionated mother has taxed her in ways she never imagined.
“I feel like I need to be respectful of her,” says Davenport (not her real name). “It’s just hard.”
Like many parents, Davenport’s mother is opinionated, and the two have had a continual power struggle when those opinions cross boundaries.
“I’m middle aged, for god’s sake,” she laments. “And having someone try to parent you is annoying.”
Davenport’s story is typical of many Baby Boomers who now make up the Sandwich Generation – middle-aged adults who care for both children and parents.
As editor of Today’s Caregiver and Caregiver.com, Gary Barg understands her struggles, and offers a wealth of advice for those facing her predicament.
Barg says setting specific ground rules for private space and family responsibilities – even duties for parents – is important to this new living arrangement.
“As with most important family conversations, honesty is truly the best policy,” he says.
Barg asks children to try to understand the immense frustrations of once-vibrant parents now slowed by age, hearing loss, and a maddening lack of independence.
In fact, “bossy” parents are often “just trying to establish their value in a new and confusing family structure.”
To help parents feel valued, involve them substantively in how the house operates, he suggests. Offer them gardening space. Ask them what groceries to buy. Suggest they cook a signature meal. For those less agile, even folding a load of laundry will help them feel important.
“No matter what your senior loved ones’ present cognitive capabilities, they have lived a long and valued life and need to feel that they have not lost their ability to contribute,” he says. “Try and find something that they can be in charge of or even help you with…. Even if their cognitive abilities are not what they used to be, they will always appreciate being respected.”
Perhaps most critical for aging adults is to have their hearing checked, he adds. Failing eyesight and mobility quickly produce glasses and canes, but audio-related problems are often overlooked – possibly because of the stigma attached to wearing once-clunky hearing aids.
“There are so many advances in hearing technologies that an appointment to an audiologist is crucial when you think your loved one is having hearing issues,” he says. “My first suggestion is to make an appointment for yourself as an ice-breaker and make one for your loved one at the same time.”
Yet what to do about those questions repeated over and over again?
Do your best to put yourself in the position of the older adult, he advises, and realize for older adults struggling with cognitive decline, they are asking that question for the first time, every time. Try to see beyond your own frustrations. And realize the limited days you have together are precious.
Despite Davenport’s challenges, she says the experience of “mom as roommate” is beneficial – especially for her children who can watch these multigenerational growing pains.
“Because we’re going to be there too,” she says. “And how do we want to be treated? If we’re not respectful of our elders, (our kids are) not going to be either.”
Barg says caring compassionately for everyone is essential to the relationship’s success.
“If I was given one wish, it would be that caregivers do not feel the guilt, shame and fear that often accompanies our caregiving,” he says.
Offering a helping hand to all generations – no matter what age – is an important life lesson illuminated by that poignant letter.
“And when my old, tired legs don’t let me move as quickly as before, give me your hand the same way that I offered mine to you when you first walked.”