Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Caring for a difficult parent – Brooke Shields shares

Her name was Kathy, and she visited her father, faithfully and unfailingly three times each week.
Her father had advanced COPD, which meant he lived on oxygen, and frequently had difficulty with even the smallest chore. I’ve heard advanced COPD described as a feeling of drowning, as breathing becomes more and more difficult.

Kathy watched her father struggle more and more to breathe with each week that passed. One day she stopped by my office; I’ll never forget our conversation.

“My father was an alcoholic when I was growing up,” she began. “I never remember a time when he acted like he even cared about us kids, let alone wanted to help us succeed in life.

“He was often violent and brutal to us. I lived in fear of him until I finally got out of the house to go to college.”

Kathy told how she had distanced herself from her father and refused to let him become a part of her own children’s lives.

And then, somehow, the hospital had found her and contacted her when her father was admitted from home, no longer able to live alone and care for himself.

Kathy became the primary family caregiver. She helped her father move into our assisted living community, and she faithfully visited him three times each week. None of us knew about her history until that day when she finally shared it.

We cried together as she talked about her experience with an alcoholic dad, and the strange twist life took leaving her with the responsibility to now ensure his care.

I’ll never forget Kathy’s story, nor her brave efforts to build a relationship with a father with whom she’d never had a real relationship before.

Over the years, though, I learned that Kathy is not alone. Many, many adult children have become steadfast, loyal caregivers to parents who were never dedicated caregivers to them as children.

Brooke Shield’s story of caring for her mother who now has Alzheimer’s disease is just one high-profile example. Shields shares her painful decision to place her mother in an assisted living community after a reporter checked her mother out for lunch last week, causing Shields considerable anxiety and distress.

Shields had apparently planned to keep her mother’s move to the assisted living community private. It is personal, but here’s my message to Brooke and to the many other adult children of individuals with high care needs and strained relationships.

Do not be ashamed of finding a good care community for your loved one.

Be proud that you care enough to find good care for your loved one. Know that what you are doing – caring for a person who may not have cared best for you when you needed her most – is honorable and right.

I don’t know if I could have done what Kathy did, investing so much time and energy on a parent who made my childhood a living hell.

But Kathy’s caring – and Brooke Shields’ actions – give me faith that we can overcome our history and build relationships with our aged loved ones, and become better, stronger people as the result.

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