By Nathan Whitlock
Nearly 10 years ago, Meg Federico, mom of an 11-, 12- and 14-year-old and author of Welcome to the Departure Lounge: Adventures in Mothering Mother (Doubleday Canada) found herself in a situation she had never imagined: “I was flying back and forth between my family in Halifax and New Jersey to take care of my elderly, alcoholic, ailing mother and my newly minted, cocktail-loving stepfather with undiagnosed Alzheimer. As their health deteriorated, their situation became more demanding, and I was tempted to throw in the towel — as if I could!” Federico admits. “I was so stressed out, and so torn. I was always either being
a bad mother or a bad daughter. I never felt I had either base covered.” Dealing with one or two elderly parents is something more and more Canadians face every day, whether they want to or not. According to Statistics Canada, there are currently more than two million Canadian adults acting as caregivers for their parents. With life expectancies get- ting ever longer, those numbers will only grow. Moreover, with people often living whole oceans away rom their parents, and with cultural changes meaning that people are having their own children later in life, the challenges of being caught in the “sandwich generation” — between your
children and your parents — have become increasingly difficult. While our parents will always be our parents, at some point the roles shift. The dynamic of who-cares-for-whom starts to change, and what seemed like a status quo that would simply last forever, comes to an end. And when that happens, it’s not only difficult, it’s a life-changer.
The hardest part is recognizing that the status quo is coming to an end. “You still see your mom as having a certain kind of stature, which can prevent you from being able to make tough decisions,” says
Federico. “Until you are in that hands-on situation, you can’t see through your role as daughter to your mother, when those roles are actually reversing.”
Denial is a common reaction. Ruby*, a young woman in Owen Sound, Ont., with a grandmother in a nursing home, says her parents have difficulty dealing “with the reality of the situation, perhaps having a
bit of a rose-coloured view of grandma snuggled up on the side porch all morning reading magazines.” She often checks in on her grandmother, and will keep the worst information from her parents. “I feel as though I am not allowed to be upset by anything that is going on with grandma,” she says. “Mom and Dad could just not take it.”
It can be tough to come to terms with an aging parent, even when you see them every day, as in the case of Maria*, whose 88-year-old mother has lived with her and her husband and two sons, ages 21 and 27, for nearly two and a half decades. Though her mother’s physical health is excellent, her mental health has deteriorated to dementia. “Every day is like Groundhog Day,” Maria laughs. Maria is able to joke about the situation, but her eldest son, Emilio*, says it takes a toll on both his parents. “I’ve grown up watching
it happen,” he says about his grandmother’s increasing eccentricity, “where my mother and father still have that respect for her to think, “Come on, you’re smarter than this.” For his own part, though, he is more sanguine. “I’m a little bit more resigned [than my mother] to the fact that she’s old, “ he says. Emilio often keeps his grandmother company, especially on weekends, when Maria is working. Maria does everything she can to keep these times few and far between, however: she and her husband don’t go away on extended vacations, because they feel leaving her son alone to deal with his grandmother for that long would be wrong. “It’s my responsibility,” Maria says.
Maria says that there was never really any doubt about what to do with her mother. Being Italian, she says, virtually made the decision for them. The idea of putting her mother in a rest home was “something of
a last resort for us.” At the same time, however, she insists that she would never ask her sons to care for her the same way she cares for her mother. “Knowing what I’m going through, I would never impose that
upon my sons,” she says. “In the future, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Knowing [Emilio], the way he is, he would never leave me alone if I couldn’t be alone. But I wouldn’t want that.” Emilio, however, is not so sure. “Part of me says, “if that’s what my parents need, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Cultural background can play a role in how one deals with aging parents, but that doesn’t mean that decisions will be clearcut. “Someone told me, “Don’t even think you’re going to get family unity on this,
because no one does,” says Federico.
In some cases, just deciding when to even have the discussion is tough. Jennifer*, who lives in Barrie, Ont., and is the mother of four adult daughters, has two parents still living in their own home. Since both
parents, who are in their late eighties, are still fairly healthy and independent she feels she can’t make any concrete plans for their future, but she’s worried about what’s to come. Given that she moved to Barrie to
be closer to her daughters, who all live in Toronto, there is the added guilt over feeling as though she has chosen her own family over her parents, who live a three-hour drive away. For now, she is stuck waiting for
something that will force a change in the situation and compel all the family members to the table to talk things through.
Linda Scott, co-author with Barbara Dunn of Our Turn to Parent: Shared Experiences and Practical Advice on Caring for Aging Parents in Canada (Random House Canada), maintains that talking it out is essential. And the discussion need not be contained to just the siblings: she recommends drawing on your parents’ network
of friends as well as your own as a resource. If nothing else, it can be comforting just to get the situation out in the open. “There’s a stress that comes with thinking you have to deal with everything all by yourself,” Scott says. Talking it out “allows you to feel it’s not a secret or saves you from being ashamed that your parents need help.”
Another invaluable resource is the Internet. Dedicated sites like Caring for Aging Parents in Canada (agingparents.ning.com) and Aging Parents and Elder Care (aging-parents-and-elder-care.com) not only
contain mountains of information, but, perhaps more importantly, host support groups and discussions.
Don’t forget that there are some potentially sympathetic ears closer to home. Kids can help in the process, too. As in the case of Emilio, they are often more accepting of change than we give them credit for, and talking it out with them can at least help mitigate feelings that you’re failing both your parents and your kids.
Your parents’ care is one of the hardest things to plan for, given all the variables and the natural reluctance to talk openly about such a touchy subject. Federico insists that thinking ahead is not just about
planning for your parents; it’s about coming to terms with your own feelings about aging and mortality.
It’s important to keep in mind that, though you may feel that you are parenting them, they are not children. Dunn says that allowing parents as much dignity and independence as possible is key to their well-being. And every little bit helps. “If we give them the opportunity to be independent in small ways,” she says, “then it gives them a sense they’re still in control of their lives.”
Taking care of a child is difficult enough. When you add in the stress of suddenly having to act as a caregiver to your own parents, it can often seem unbearable. But it’s not impossible. It is also something that
must be dealt with eventually, so preparing yourself emotionally and, on a more practical level, with some research and education, will be a big help. Talking to your own kids about possible future scenarios is a good
idea, too. Like parenting your own children, taking care of an elderly parent is something that will change you forever, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “If you can open your life up to help others who are older, ill or dependent, then you can become a role model for your children,” says Federico. “You may be able to leave a map for others to follow, if that doesn’t sound too gooey,” she adds with a laugh.
Which also suggests that the best resource for someone in the middle of that sandwich may be a sense of humour.
Toronto-based author and editor Nathan Whitlock suspects his two kids will stick him on an ice floe the minute he’s too old to take care of himself.
*Names have been changed