Monday, August 3, 2009

Don’t parent your parents

Remember your teen years? Most of us cringe when we think of the relationship (or lack thereof) we had with our parents during those years. Some of us (not me, of course!) still have secrets from our folks about our adventures during those tumultuous years…secrets that, God willing, we’ll take to our graves!

So why would we want to revert to a relationship with our own parents that echoes those years? Why has our culture assumed that as our roles shift in our later years – as they do throughout life – we’re moving to a “role reversal?”

Our relationship with our parents is one of the strongest forces in our lives – from birth onward.

We’re 100% dependent on them for our survival in the first years of live. As we mature and naturally progress through the stages of life, our dependency grows less and less, until we’re fully independent adults.

Along the way, of course, the relationship is fraught with challenges. Not all parents are up to the task, either physically or emotionally. Relationships can be difficult or destructive instead of nurturing and loving.

Whether the parental relationship is one that is fundamentally healthy or not, many adults in their prime years are finding that the relationship shifts once again. From living independent, largely separate lives, they begin to become more closely intertwined as the child steps into caregiving or advising roles.

It is a shift in roles, but it isn’t time to start “parenting” your parents.

It’s a time to respect them as adults. Allow them to make their own decisions, even if those decisions are not what you’d prefer. To collaborate in making life-altering moves (like leaving a long time home and moving into a care environment) and decisions about care.

Certainly there are times when our parents are no longer able to make their own decisions because of cognitive declines, confusion or memory loss.

That brings yet another shift in the relationship – but one that still reflects the need to treat our parents as adults, not as children.

Adults with whom we have long relationships, often winding and complex.

Adults in whom we’re willing to invest time, energy and passion they move into the latter phases of their lives.

Finding our path to this shift in roles is often difficult. It might include false starts and a need, from time to time, to reconsider our fundamental values in the process.

Let me suggest these values: dignity (respecting privacy, decision-making and adulthood); autonomy (the right to make informed, independent decisions about one’s own life, health and circumstances); independence (as opposed to surrender of abilities and decisions); choice (the right to select what one wishes).

Clearly, when mental function is compromised by diseases such as Alzheimer’s, some of these values may shift. The value of safety takes precedence over nearly everything else, but we’re still shifting roles within the context of adults, not children.

I don’t know about you, but I’d pretty much do whatever it takes to avoid going back to a relationship with my parents that feels like adolescence – theirs or mine. I have no interest in reversing the roles (even though imposing a curfew on them might be a little bit fun)!

What I’m interested in is learning how we travel through this next phase of life together, strengthening the relationship we have developed over the years so that it is richer, fuller and even more rewarding to us all.

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