As a mother to children with special needs, former caregiver to a very ill parent and grandparent, and psychologist, I’ve given much thought in the last few years to the crucial aspect of preserving certain boundaries in relationships, particularly the parent-child dyad.
One of the biggest and most counter intuitive lessons that I’ve learned has been to let go of certain “expected” definitions of “mother” and “daughter” and allow myself to contract certain services to specialized individuals. By doing so, these professionals can interphase with my children or parent/grandparent on stressful caregiving activities, allowing me to enjoy my relationship with my loved ones without having to engage in interactions that can leave one or both parties feeling resentful.
As a mother to children with special needs, I’ve had to learn to let go of challenging goals that are very difficult to meet given my lack of training. By hiring speech and language pathologists, tutors and fellow therapists to assist me, I am able to provide my children with the best services possible. I have realized that I do not have to be my children’s teacher, psychologist or speech therapist, and that allowing others to take over those roles frees me to have positive communications with my them, just as a mother of children without special needs might have. I don’t have to do the dirty work if I don’t want to and, in fact, someone else might be much more effective at it.
Unfortunately, when my grandmother and mother became ill, I didn’t have the knowledge yet that there were options other than personally becoming a caregiver to them. In my mind, only “nursing homes” existed which were the stereotypical places where ungrateful children dumped their elderly parents instead of doing the responsible thing. The idea that there could be beautiful, caring and effective retirement communities light-years away from the stereotype perpetuated by the media of a “nursing home” and where the characteristics of “nursing homes” and the term itself is frowned upon, never even materialized. Furthermore, coming from a cultural background which emphasizes the caregiving of elderly parents as the non-negotiable role of a daughter did not help me to be open to exploring other options either. Caring for your elders was expected of me, by others and by myself.
When my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, never did it cross my mind that options for her care could exist that would allow me to have peace of mind while permitting me to use the time left together with my grandmother as a granddaughter instead of nurse and cook. Despite having been accepted at an internship for my Clinical Psychology doctoral program, I withdrew from school for that semester and promptly flew to be near her. I found myself coordinating nursing care, cooking specialized meals, bathing my grandmother and providing a myriad of other services. Not only was I emotionally and physically exhausted and grieving, but I also found that for the first time in my life I was having negative interactions with my grandmother, which I had not expected. She resented the times when I wanted her to eat, she was cranky and yelled at me that I was not making her recipes correctly, and she was very upset when I had to help her undress and bathe her. In retrospect, I believe that it is just as psychologically stressful for aging relatives as it is for their children and grandchildren to experience the role-reversal that can occur when aging relatives require more support and their children become their “parents.”
A few years after my grandmother passed away, my mother became terminally ill. Once more, it never crossed my mind that there might be a community that could offer specialized services that I did not need to provide. In my case, time did not allow for me to even begin to explore this as she passed away very quickly. However, I think that had her illness run the course more like my grandmother’s, I would have loved to be aware of the options out there.
While I do not regret having been my grandmother and mother’s caregiver, I think that it is important for adult children to know that it’s more than okay to explore other caregiving options. It is time to transition from the paradigm that paying for specialized services is a way for parents and grown children with financial means to abandon and unload their responsibilities onto others. Instead, we should start to frame it into a paradigm of allowing trustworthy specialists to care for our loved ones’ needs and challenges while using the time spent with them to enjoy our time together and to deepen our relationships, thus preserving our parent-child roles. Furthermore, there are retirement communities which truly work from the paradigm of providing as much choice and dignity as possible to aging relatives. If you have an aging relative who requires increased services and support, you might want to explore the services available, with the spirit of preserving the ties between you.