What do we owe our parents? The founder of the Alzheimer’s Reading Room raised this question recently, and when I thought about it, I feltï¿½conflicted. You see, I may be in a closeted minority that’s willing to admit publicly that I don’t think I owe my parents anything. Before you start pelting me with words like “ungrateful” or worse, let me get in my two cents. Did my parents do a good job of parenting? Well, I suspect they did the best they could with the resources and tools that were given to them. Their parenting skills were not perfect – but again, I suspect that perfection in this area is not only relative, but that it evolves over time and circumstance. And, you know, even if I were to evaluate the skills they displayed as absolutely perfect, I would still respond that I don’t owe them a thing.
Even with this mindset, I’ve given my parents at least 20 hours a week of my time for the last 8 years – lending a hand anyway I can. At first it was caring for my father who was sliding into dementia along with an assortment of other physical maladies. I fed, clothed, and “entertained” him until he died three years ago. In addition, mother didn’t have a clue about things like bill-paying, checkbooks and taxes, so I became the banker. She was also not “suited” to figure out his medications (or hers, either), and was unable to transport them to their various doctors’ visits and other appointments – or to even organize and schedule those appointments, so I also added pharmacist, nurse, chauffeur and ambulance driver, senior advocate, and administrative assistant to my repertoire. I helped them plan their estate by interviewing and enrolling the assistance of elder law and estate planning attorneys and accountants. This has been an enormous undertaking and at times it has been difficult as I try to balance my own needs, my family’s needs, the needs of a growing business, in conjunction with their needs.
Last Saturday my mother fell, and I got the call. I did the 45 minute drive to her apartment and then spent another 9 hours with her in the Emergency Room while they assessed the status of her bones and brain. And then a doc came over to check her, saying to her, “You’re very lucky to have your daughter looking out for you, you know.” Her response? “It’s just payback for all those 2AM feedings.” Well, I felt angry when she said that. Payback? Payback? What the… As if I owed her this. Her statement cheapened the beauty of this gift – the most important gift one can give – one’s time. Simply stated, her comment was an insult. The doc cast her eyes downward, then looked at me and I turned away. I don’t do well when I’ve been humiliated.
So, if I don’t feel I owe them anything, why do I do it? Why do I labor in a field that can be bothï¿½futile and ungrateful. I do it because “family” is important to me. I do it because my personal philosophy is to take good care of oneself, first; one’s family, next; and all else comes after that. Self-preservation is nature’s first law. And preservation of family is a natural extension of that law. So, simply stated, I do it because it’s the “natural” thing to do, the right thing to do – but I’m NOT doing it because once they bought me a pretty party dress.
It’s not easy to do this. I struggled to figure out where the time would come from. I struggled as I approached and conquered tasks that could be considered demeaning. And I continue to struggleï¿½as I did last Saturday night in the Emergency Room. But it’s not all one-sided. There are rewards. The most important reward is self-satisfaction. It was an enormous challenge that was thrust upon me, a challenge that’s faced by literally millions of other family caregivers on a daily basis. We know in our gut when we’re doing it right, when we’re doing it well. And that’s its own reward.