Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Caring for Elderly or Infirm Parents Who Were Not Always The Best of Parents

I just read a post from the blog, Half-Past Kissin' Time, on The BlogHer Network.  It isn't a long post and basically it just asks the question, "Are we obligated to take care of our parents one day?" That question is an especially complicated one for persons who had their childhood contaminated with less than stellar parenting. 

As some of you know, I took care of my Mom from early March through late June 2007 when she passed away in her home of 67 years at the age of 92.  Let me tell you a little bit about the details  of our relationship.  Mom was in her forties when she gave birth to me.  She and Dad owned a small mixed crop farm that made less and less money throughout the 1960s and 1970s  while I was growing up.  She worked unbelievably hard and was not a happy person.  She thought she was done having children over 9 years earlier when she gave birth to the last of my four brothers.  Neither my youngest brother, the one 9 years older than me,  nor I were planned.  She told me once when I was around 10 years old that "I never asked for you to be born."  When I was about 12 and feeling the intensity of what I think was probably my first severe depressive episode, I was sobbing and asked the question, "Why do I have to be so ugly?" Mom answered "I wouldn't say you are ugly,  you are just plain."  She, obviously, was not always a tactful or compassionate mother.  These types of comments were just the tip of the iceberg.  Let it suffice to say that I don't think that anyone who knew the truth of all the things that went on in my family would have expected me to leave Arizona and return to Indiana to care for my mother during her final days, especially not when I had a teenage daughter, age 17,  at home, as well as a marriage that needed attention.  But I did.

I did not have to do it.  I would not expect anyone who has experienced medical child abuse, or any type of child abuse, to be able to personally care for the parent or person who abused or orchestrated the abuse, nor even to want to participate in any way in care-giving for that person.

I finally came to terms with my abuse four years before my mother died.   I confronted my Mom about the lack of care about 10 years before that.  I was old enough, mature enough, when all this unfolded that I could realize I had the ability to control whether I interacted with my Mom and what those interactions were like.  Realizing this was empowering.  I know the word empower is over used to the point of banality, but this truly was a realization that I had power over my own life.  That allowed me to say, "Just because my mother was not always a good mother does not mean that I have to be a "bad" daughter.  I choose to interact and, if I want to, I can be good daughter.  It was not always smooth sailing, but I learned, when I was around my mom during those ensuing years, to take actions that preserved my autonomy.  I always rented a hotel room when I visited my Mom in the years before she was dying.  It gave me a place to retreat to when being around my mom became caustic. 

My mother's decline had begun in earnest a few months before I began caring for her. We tried other caretakers first.  It wasn't the first option. It was the last option before putting her in a nursing home knowing she would never come home again.  In other words, it wasn't my first choice.  Her condition also influenced my choice.  She was weak, frail, and could not initiate speech.  She could answer questions when directly asked and her answers showed that she was cogent and understood the basics of what was happening around her.  It might have been an entirely different story if she could initiate speech and chose to criticize me.  But we were not anywhere near that reality.  It might have been different if the sweet side of Mom was not obviously in tact and responding to the little things I did for her.

I did not think of it this way at the time, but the months together allowed us to bond through physical contact that I had no memory of ever experiencing with her.  I fed, dressed, and bathed her.  I cooked her favorite foods and at bedtime I always gave her a kiss on the forehead and told her I loved her, and she told me she loved me.  This time allowed us both to heal emotionally. I know it allowed me to heal.  I want to think it allowed her to heal too.

And there was another after the fact impact that I didn't give much thought to at the time.  Though my daughter felt a bit abandoned by me at the time, she has told me since then that she will take care of me.  I modeled compassion and she noticed.

Many things came together to allow me to be in a place in my life from which I could care for my mother.  We all have different circumstances.  As long as you are comfortable with it don't rule any option out.   If you have gotten to that point in life, you know you are in charge and what other people, beyond those you love, really doesn't matter.   Do what is right.  What is right will not hurt you.