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By Marsha Kay Seff

March 1, 2013 (San Diego) -- Becoming your parents’ parent conjures up pictures of “tangled apron strings.”

As a child, the strings seemed well-defined.  You needed your parents and their role was to fulfill your needs.  Now, with your parents aging and leaning increasingly on you, the apron strings are tangled and wound tightly around you.

This role reversal isn’t easy for any of you.  Your parents, no doubt, are fighting furiously to cling to their dignity and independence.  At the same time, you’re pulled between the demands of your own family and the need to help your parents.

You might be looking out for them – becoming their caregiver – out of love, caring for the people who loved and cared for you.  Or you might feel a sense of duty to care for them, even though your relationship has been rocky.  Regardless of why you ended up in this role, it’s a tricky one.

Your parents will always think of you as their child.  And listening to your advice and taking directions from their child is bound to rub them the wrong way at least some of the time.  Neither is it a day at the beach for you to become the conductor of your parents’ later life.

So you all do your best.  Sometimes, you, as the caregiver, overstep your boundaries; often, they fight back.  You push and they push harder.  But the way I figure it, if you act lovingly, do what you believe is in their best interest, you can’t go too far wrong.

At some time, you’ll probably have to take over your parents’ shopping, finances and medical decisions.  You’ll be lucky if you can all agree on when the time is right. More likely, their dependency will be gradual.  The biggest mistake you can all make is waiting until a crisis to make changes -- until Dad trips on a rug and breaks a hip, until Mom forgets to turn off the stove and sets the kitchen on fire or until someone scams them and takes a big chunk out of their nest egg. 

The trick is to help steer your parents in the right direction without steamrolling them.  You need to learn to suggest – not demand.  After all, it’s still their life.

I used to give my mom several choices – all of which I thought could work out – so that she could feel like she was still in control and making the decisions.  “Mom, shall we install a shower seat or would a walk-in tub be better?  Do you want to tell the doctor about your anxiety or would you like me to discuss it with him?”

It’s not uncommon for aging parents to be unconcerned about their own safety, while that’s all the adult children worry about.  The experts say we need to respect our parents’ wishes as much as possible, as long as they’re not endangering anyone else.

I was more selfish about safety and health.  I knew if they got hurt or sick, I was the one who was going to have to nurse them.  At one point, my mom, who was unsteady on her feet and used a walker, insisted on buying slip-on shoes.  I know she liked them because she could put them on without help.  But I was scared to death she was going to walk out of them, fall and break a hip – again.  Neither of us would give in.  

Finally, I told her she could buy the clogs on the condition that if she hurt herself, I would not visit her in the hospital.  She agreed and bought the shoes.  And, you know what?  She was so scared of falling and proving me right that she paid such close attention to walking in those shoes that she never did have an accident in them.

Then, there was the no-salt requirement when Mom was in heart failure and on hospice. The doctor said no-salt and I made certain Mom followed that regimen.  Why?  Would it have meant an extra week, an extra day?  She’d probably have traded that time for fries and salty ketchup.

I try not to beat myself up about mistakes I made as a caregiver, because I know I did the best I could possibly do.  Even so, if I had it to do over, I would have done some things differently.  I regret that I refused to give my dad his wallet and some cash when he was in a skilled-nursing facility, because he didn’t need money and I was afraid if would be stolen.  It probably would have been.  But, again, so what?  It was a small expense in order to allow Dad to claim a little independence. 

You’ll make mistakes, too.  The knots in the apron strings will become tighter.  But cut yourself and your parents some slack.  All you can do is what seems best at the time. 

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