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When your parents become your children and visa-versa

  • Written by  Margaret Miller Curtis
When your parents become your children and visa-versa

I’ve been known to say that when I leave this earth, I will be glad to go. That attitude springs from all the horrors and terrors of aging, including the role reversal occurring between elderly parents and their children.

Our mother often reminded us that the worst thing that could ever happen to her would be having to live with her children. We were not offended, because we thought it might be the worst thing that could ever happen to us too. After all, loving someone is no guarantee of being able to live together compatibly, and the older and younger generations have very different needs and preferences. 

When mother visited us, she always complained about how chilly our house in Atlanta was, and just in case we weren’t listening, she got our attention by wearing her winter coat indoors.  My husband, Dan, hot blooded Yankee that he was, stripped down to shorts and a tee shirt when we visited her in Marianna, even when it wasn’t summer. Old and young do not share similar body thermostats.

As parents, we were once the source of gifts and instructions. But it isn’t easy to accept our children being the same for us. One of our sons became so successful that there was nothing we could do for him or give him that he didn’t already have, which made us feel powerless. We didn’t like that feeling, and the only thing we wanted from him was to be able to spend time with him and his family. Time was the only thing he didn’t have enough of, and when holidays came around, he skipped family gatherings to take his wife and children to more exotic locations. We understood his desire to do as much as he could for his children, because after all, we had done the same for him.

Even so, the way I felt reminded me of one Christmas during the Great Depression when we were opening gifts at my grandmother Cook’s house. An insensitive, male cousin told us to not to bother opening Grandmother’s gifts because there were only oranges inside the wrapping paper. The way her face fell is exactly the way I felt when I realized there was nothing more I could do for our son or his family.  

Far too many other people have the opposite situation. The younger generation may feel responsible for   their elderly parents but simply haven’t the resources to offer them. Often both partners in a marriage are employed and neither have time to be caretakers.

Even so, when visiting my sister, Jeanette, in a nursing home in Indiana, it broke my heart to see an elderly man, immaculately dressed, show up in the lobby at the same time every day, seat himself on a sofa overlooking the parking lot, and begin looking for a car that never arrived. According to the nursing staff, that vigil was the only reason he had for getting out of bed in the mornings. 

It is easy to get annoyed with elderly people. Our kids think we don’t listen to them, but the truth is, we don’t hear well and often we forget things. We make a lot of mistakes, not realizing that we simply aren’t as smart as we used to be. The younger generation is far ahead of us in knowing how to take advantage of all the new and rapidly changing technology, even though they once admired us for knowing how to use a sewing machine or repair a car engine. We don’t enjoy feeling like idiots if we call on them for help with our computers or phones that are smarter than we are, but, thankfully, there are   two or three family members who have endless patience. We have found that having four children and ten grandchildren is a good thing, because if one of them lacks a certain skill or virtue, another one might have it.

We are aghast that younger people are marrying less often and living together instead. We used to call it “shacking up” and that was not a compliment. If we are smart, we will keep our opinions to ourselves and forego passing judgment or giving advice.  We have also learned that we must be careful not to appear that we prefer one grandchild over another, because sibling rivalry never dies.  

We don’t want our children to treat us as though we are the children and they are the parents, because what we all need is to be respected. Respect is an important form of love and we need to feel respected even if our children should become the ones who put diapers on us just as we once did for them. Our children also want the respect we would show any other adult, and certainly do not want to be treated as though they are still children who need us to tell them what to do and how to do it.    

 Rather than acting like our parents, we do want and need our children to act as though they are our partners.   I love it that our daughter is happy to keep a record of my doctors’ appointments and reminds me of the exact time she will arrive to drive me to them. She listens carefully to the doctor’s remarks and remembers information that I either didn’t hear or forgot. Even so, I know she has a life of her own, and if she has other plans, I’ll make other arrangements. 

Dan still clings to his independence and although he admires Anne’s skill as a driver through Atlanta’s awful traffic, he, nevertheless, would rather make and keep his own appointments. Because of that, he misses far more of his appointments than I do because two minds are still better than one.

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