When the parent becomes child and child becomes parent

I bet you didn’t know that the war for independence is being fought on a daily basis throughout our glorious country. From the time we are born until the time we die, each of us strives to assert our independence. Once the toddler learns to run, he insists on running wherever he wants to. As he ages, we foster his need to be independent and teach him to use it wisely and appropriately all the while, chaperoning him to assure his safety.

Eventually, the toddler grows to be a man, independent in every sense of the word and responsible for his actions. He raises his family, starting the cycle anew. As the man ages, his abilities diminish. His hearing is not as good. His vision is not as good. His reaction time and mental abilities may diminish as well. With advanced age, he becomes like the young man. His independence, which he is fiercely proud of, becomes threatened.

Hard of hearing with poor vision, the old man’s body begins to falter. Agility is a thing of the past. Walking upright without falling becomes a task. The old man now resembles the toddler. Just as the toddler needs close supervision, so does the old man. The difference is that the toddler knows he cannot drive. The old man insists he can. He is a safe driver. He doesn’t go very far from home. He has to drive to maintain his independence. He would never think of taking a cab. Taking a cab costs money!

The war of independence begins. Parent becomes child and child becomes parent. The old man’s children tell him he can’t drive. He says he passed the eye test, he can drive. The children tell him there is more to driving than seeing. They tell him he can’t hear. He insists he can. He can hear the T.V., but so can the neighbors three houses away.

The old man says he doesn’t want to be a burden. He insists he can live alone, care for himself, cook, and drive. His insistence on being independent, when clearly he can no longer be independent, becomes a burden on his children. The thing he wants most, independence, is worth fighting for. He starts fights. He gets angry. He pushes those who love him away.

Fighting for our independence is engrained in all of us. Age brings wisdom but advanced age often steals wisdom. False bravado, compounded by visual and auditory deficits, puts the elderly at risk. Add slow reaction times, arthritic joints, muscle wasting, and memory deficits and you have a perfect formula for disaster.

Unfortunately, there are no winners in this age old fight for independence. The elderly will eventually succumb to the degradation of their body by the aging process. They will struggle to stay independent and, in the process, lose their dignity.

The children who must become the parents of their parents in order to protect them will find taking their parents’ driver licenses away to be an arduous, thankless task. They will find that fighting to protect their loved one causes tremendous emotional pain to them and their parents. They will try to pass the buck to their siblings. As things deteriorate with age, choices will get harder. Nursing homes, twenty four hour in house care, and hospice all have serious drawbacks; all cause further emotional upheaval.

The life cycle goes on everyday across the world. If I live long enough, I’m sure I’ll end up in diapers again. What can we do when it’s our time? When it’s our time to be a parent’s guardian, we can remember that it is important to let our elders make as many decisions for themselves as safety allows. Much like you do in raising an infant, we have to remember to foster our parents independence as safety dictates.

As elders, we should recognize that the day will come when we cannot drive. We should embrace age and accept help, recognizing our limitations. Hopefully, when my time comes, I will not fight the war of independence but instead capitulate to the ravages of age and keep an “attitude of gratitude” for the things I can still do. I am sure I will be grateful for my loving family and for Depends.

Stewart Segal is a family physician who blogs at Livewellthy.org.

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  • Karen Casey

    For those who have not read it, “Water for Elephants” provides an accurate view of life inside a nursing home. The speaker is in his 90′s, and though physically weak, is mentally all there. The best-seller list ratings are due to the wonderful flashbacks, of course.

  • Dave Miller

    Alright, who’s been spying on me?!?

    It’s the riddle of the Sphinx all over again. And just like in Thebes, the penalty for having the wrong answer is severe but the rewards for the right answer can be amazing! ;-)

  • Madeleine G.

    Well said! Parenting a parent is never easy but your article puts a new perspective on independence. I am printing this and putting it with my living will and advising my chidren to parent me gently with as much indepence as safety will allow me… Thanks

  • Judy

    Amen! Well said! As a hospice RN, I saw many examples of people who “just drove to the store, slowly” despite slowed reflexes, poor hearing and a multitude of medical conditions. In my mother’s case, only the realization that she could not pass the vision test forced her to agree not to drive. Never mind her increasing frailty, dependence on a walker, decreasing mobility in right leg. When I turned to security staff at retirement community for back up, they were less that 100% helpful. Like Stewart, I am preparing myself for when I will become dependent and hope that I will know when to stop driving.

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