Parenting an Aging Parent

Parenting an Aging Parent and Helping Her Through New Experiences
By P. Jefferson

While we’re growing up, we eagerly view getting older as the pathway to life’s important “firsts” or milestones—starting school, getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school, then college, getting married, just to name a few.  We recognize and often celebrate each milestone as the important accomplishment it is and continue to learn and grow as we reach the next ones.

Along the way, our parents are with us for those firsts but are growing older too; in an almost imperceptible way. So what happens when the tables turn and you’re the one guiding Mom through her firsts?  Call it what you want—weird, disconcerting, even scary—but many of us will experience just this as our parents live out their senior years.

Only now, as she is in her late 70s and I am in my early 40s, do I really notice that my mother’s aging process has led to a type of developmental “u-turn” which has her losing some ground in her learning skills, responsibilities and comfort with new situations. In many ways, it’s almost a mother-daughter role reversal.  Ironically, in my mother’s case, this is happening at the same time she is also experiencing some important firsts in her life—ones that most people her age typically experienced decades earlier.

Over a year ago, after nearly 50 years of marriage (most of it rocky), my Mom suddenly left my father.  She lived with me for a few months while she recovered from the psychological trauma of the severed marriage.  During that time my brother, sister and I tried to figure out a more permanent living arrangement for her where all parties would be comfortable.  There were often tears in Mom’s eyes (and both empathy and frustration for us) as she processed her new situation and slowly tried to decide what she wanted to do next.   It’s hard to imagine starting over at the age of 77 but in the end, Mom’s decision was to live in her own 1-bedroom apartment in the same building as my brother.

Despite having just started a new job at the time all this happened, I did most of the planning, comparing and purchasing of housewares and furniture for Mom’s new apartment. With two siblings you might think these tasks would have been divided up to make it equitable or at least easier, but knowing their personalities, if Mom was ever to move into her own place and actually settle-in during this lifetime, I needed to jump into the situation and get moving.

Although I was doing the leg work, I wanted Mom to participate in creating her new apartment so I tried to include her in furniture shopping and the rest, but she increasingly left the decisions to me by saying “You take care of it” or “I trust your judgment.”  It was nice to be trusted so fully but, at the same time, I then shouldered all responsibility for the decisions and details at a time when I was already stressed by working at a new company.  

Why was a woman of mature years—who was finally getting a chance to live life on her own terms—leaving all of the decisions to her daughter? It made me angry and impatient at times. At other times, I understood that Mom wasn’t able to handle all of the changes that had suddenly come her way. It had been at least 40 years since she had last set-up a household.

Although Mom is fairly adaptable and independent, it’s become evident that some new concepts are tricky for her and other skills that were routine earlier in her life seem to have been forgotten or gotten rusty. For instance, Mom has expressed interest in taking on new responsibilities so that she can learn new skills and not feel like a burden, yet some of the financial details of living on her own have been difficult for her to grasp. Throughout her marriage, my father took care of the checking account and paid the bills, so managing such an account is a foreign and uneasy task for her.  Making an entry in the check register still creates near-panic for Mom. I walk her through the process each time she needs to write a check for the cable TV company, her credit card or another payee. Writing just a handful of checks each month causes her such anxiety that this month I sat with her but wrote them out myself.  Mom seemed relieved. We’ll try again next month.

Similarly, medical insurance details such as making appointments, finding out what is and isn’t covered by her plan, co-payments, getting authorizations and the like, tend to be more frustrating for Mom than most since she only entered this world of routine health care about three years ago. Before that, she had rarely been to doctors in the last 35 years. Of course, it was much easier to navigate health insurance 35 years ago—before it became such an intimidating, ever-changing entity.

To keep the stress and potential misunderstandings to a minimum, I usually make Mom’s appointments, call the insurance company when a specialist or a new medical procedure is needed and call whenever any questions about coverage or charges arise.  I am weary of the added responsibility at times and lament my new “mothering” role at others but in the end, it needs to be done and for now at least, I can handle it.

With time, the number of firsts in Mom’s life will lessen—although probably not her anxiety—and her confidence will improve in some ways.  As she reaches the cusp of 80 years old, however, my siblings and I know that she has turned a corner and will need more and more of our support…and patience.  She is now both our Mother and our Daughter in many ways.