Shifting Sands - Adult Children Caring for Elderly Parents
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Adult Children Caring for Elderly Parents
By Amanda Spurling
I’ve always adored and revered older people. Doddering grannies, bent forward and peering over the top of their glasses. Cheery ‘old ducks’, those vigorous in mind even if languid in body. The cheeky Italian gents in caps conversing on town benches. Suited-up war heroes with decorated apparel. Those whose faces bear the marks of a life lived and whose eyes chronicle its stories.
Mostly my admiration has been at a distance. But what about my own ageing parents? Although only just reaching retirement age and in perfect health, they too will soon be among our senior citizens.
Do we revere those who reach old age? Or, with life expectancy increasing, are we letting respect slip? The number of Australians over the age of 65 is set to double by 2050. “Now there are so many, familiarity can breed contempt and the elderly can simply be seen as one more social problem,” says Family Counsellor Bill Robinson of Relationships Australia.
Let’s not forget what it’s like for a once capable adult to be dependent. Paul Coates from Carers WA says they can struggle with a loss of identity as choices are made for them. “Both the ‘child’ and the ageing parent have to accept role changes. You retain an image of a strong, vibrant parent, yet acknowledge the reality that we all age,” he says.
But it’s hard for some to deal with their parents’ humanity. Where once they felt safe in their mother’s strong arms or listening to their father’s advice, now the sight of an elderly parent weakened by frailty or illness can cause great sadness.
“When parents enter old age, the pendulum can swing totally from our childhood, when they decided for themselves and for us, to now where we are deciding for ourselves and also for them,” Bill Robinson says.
So amidst this sometimes dramatic change in life circumstances, is it always a natural decision to care for an ageing family member? And even if it is, how do we approach the challenges?
Upsetting the balance
Accepting the baton of responsibility from a once strong but now frail parent is a path most have to travel. Yet carers and those requiring care must recognise the transition may be difficult, Paul Coates stresses. “Caring may have an adverse impact on family finances, career, social networks, health and work-life balance,” he says.
My great-grandmother caught the tram into ‘town’ at 90—two broken hips, but still going. My retired Nana delivered Meals on Wheels to the ‘elderly’. But if you find yourself caring for a parent who isn’t still firing on all cylinders, you’re not alone.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show 31% of all older Australians need assistance with personal activities such as health care and mobility. A 2009 report, Taking Care: Mature age workers with elder care responsibilities, found that 23 per cent of mature age workers expected to have ‘elder care’ responsibilities within the next five years.
The report, conducted by the Women and Work Research Group at the University of Sydney, highlighted further the pressures of caring.
“The decreasing rate of institutionalisation of elderly people is occurring whilst governments simultaneously try to contain the costs of community care. The policy solution to this dilemma has been to place greater responsibility for the care of older people into the private sphere.
“Families’ increased caring burden conflicts, however, with another public policy objective promoting mature age workers’ (particularly women) to re-enter or stay in the workforce as long as possible, in order to bolster retirement savings and alleviate labour shortages.”
These days many Australian women are delaying having children. These women, in their peak working years, now have both dependent children and elderly parents who require care. Usually in their mid-40s to mid-60s, people in this situation are labelled the “sandwich generation” for their simultaneous care-giving responsibilities.
Studies show older women (who, let’s not forget, generally live longer than men) largely prefer to receive care from daughters, which arguably ‘exacerbates the caregiving burden for women’. Published data shows women provide 79% of personal care.
“Adult children can feel a sense of emptiness and loss, that they’re responsible for both their parents and their children and the buck stops with them,” says Bill Robinson. “On the other hand, an elderly parent who is able to age gracefully can be a help and inspiration to middle-aged parents who are coming to terms with the changes.”
Pay it forward
Despite the many pressures, Australian families are still the major providers of long-term care for the aged, which is most often seen as a family responsibility, regardless of cultural background. “Often, families know each other a lot better than any service ever could,” says Paul Coates. “Hence the care is more personal and potentially satisfying, knowing that the family member is being cared for with dignity and respect in their own environment.”
Most of those with responsibilities for aged family members have been adults with their own lives for quite some time before their parents require care, according to Paul. Often such children have what he calls “a sense of honour in giving back”.
My husband recently acquired the phrase ‘pay it forward’ (which I informed him Oprah and others have been using for years). The idea is simple: repay someone who does a good turn to you by doing one to someone else. Does ‘pay it forward’ work as we care for our ageing parents?
Certainly it seems we’re repaying our parents’ goodness. They’re now receiving the care due to them for their years of sacrifice. “If we look back on our own development it’s amazing to see what our parents really did for us and how they adapted their lives to care for us,” says Genevieve Milnes, director of Psychology Australia.
Our parents ‘paid it forward’ by nurturing us in return for what they received from their parents. And by giving us life and care, they made it possible for us to give our children life and care. So our parents have also 'paid it forward' for the next generation: their grandchildren.
Fostering a healthy relationship with our ageing parents gives our children an opportunity to learn from them. The curiosity of the young about family history and past accomplishments can offer security for their present and motivation for future pursuits. Who didn’t enjoy hearing those ‘in our day’ stories as a kid?
The elderly, though perhaps frail in body, can repay the care given to them with friendship with us as well. “Parents know us inside out and accept who we are,” Bill Robinson says. “An understanding older parent can help us to understand where our talents really lie, why we might have difficulty with certain tasks or relationships and offer a new angle on how we may approach these things.”
There’s so much for a family to give and gain in caring for its older members. The circle of life sees that all generations are offered care and unconditional love.
Of course, not everyone had loving, nurturing parents. Those who didn’t receive kindness and respect from their parents, or who aren’t in a healthy relationship with them now, can hold on with appreciation to the fact that they gave them life. Honouring them may mean not repeating the mistakes of the past, and ‘paying it forward’ to their own children, knowing that one day they too will be the older generation.
“It is a frightening time for some when they recognise that their parent is not the strong person they thought they were,” says Genevieve Milnes. “In fact, our own parents can be emotionally immature and even logically underdeveloped and we may not see this until a certain set of circumstances is present.”
It should come as no surprise to us that our parents fall short of perfection, especially if we now have children of our own. When I walked out of the hospital with my one-week-old baby, I felt like someone should stop me!
Professional parents don’t exist, and perhaps it’s not until an elderly parent is forced to receive help (for the most basic needs) that some will be willing to show their frailty and humanness too.
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott coined a phrase in the 1950s: ‘the good-enough mother’. In these more inclusive days we could change that to ‘the good-enough parent’. It can be helpful for both parents and children to remind themselves of this. “The thing about the good-enough parent,” says Bill Robinson, “is that the good outweighed the bad and on balance they got it right far more often than they got it wrong.”
Gratitude and forgiveness
Although caring is difficult, the day will come when death will remove the opportunity to repay our parents. In his latest book, A Week at the Airport, philosopher Alain De Botton compares the petty reticence, frustrations, friction and arguments of a family at the airport check-in with their reactions if their plane was going down. “It seems that most of us could benefit from a brush with a near-fatal disaster to help us to recognise the important things that we are too defeated or embittered to recognise from day to day,” he says.
I recently read about an English vicar who conducts many funeral services. He found that, despite there being words left unsaid, family anger unresolved and quarrels unsettled, those left behind only had kind words for a dead parent. It seems, he said, that people ‘only bury saints’.
Many will not wait until the hospital bed to express gratitude. Harold Bloomfield in his book Making Peace with Your Parents wrote, “The psychological truth is that holding on to our past resentments towards parents robs us of our current peace of mind and our ability to experience satisfaction in the here-and-now relationships.”
Much as I try not to give cheesy car bumper stickers the time of day, one disturbingly caught my eye: “Be kind to your children, they choose your nursing home.” Comical, yes—but surely our motivation for kindness is not about our fear of being abandoned and discarded in our twilight years. There is much to give and receive as extended families care for one another.
I appreciate my parents: their consistency, trustworthiness and kindness. Their care and respect offered has cemented a friendship for my adult years.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “Compensation”, wrote: “In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.”
About the author: Amanda Spurling is a mother of two and Perth based journalist and photographer. Her book 'She Says' is available online at www.shesays.net.au or select bookstores.
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