Taking on more tasks for an aging parent is not the same thing as a role reversal, says Missy Buchanan.
By Missy Buchanan Special Contributor
My sweet-tempered mother was not a happy camper. At 89, she didn’t want to learn to drive again.
It had been seven decades since she’d first taken the wheel of a roadster. She thought her driving days were over a few years ago when she gave up her keys after a near-perfect lifetime driving record.
Chronic arthritis, however, had made it necessary for her to learn how to operate a state-of-the-art power chair to maintain a sense of independence at her senior residence.
On the day the new power chair was delivered, I saw her eyes rim with tears as she watched the man demonstrate how to use the thumb-sized joystick to control the chair. My mother is a smart cookie, but she’s not keen on high-tech gadgets and gizmos. Learning to maneuver the battery-operated chair was definitely not her idea of fun.
I could see the fear etched on her tired face as he spun the chair around and quickly navigated the small living room. She buried her head in her hands. I realized she would need driving lessons, and I would be her teacher.
It is unsettling when an older parent becomes increasingly dependent upon an adult child. We are tempted to shut our eyes to the harsh realities of a loved one transitioning from an active senior into a frail older adult.
For me, the power-chair episode was one more step along a journey that many would call a parent-child role reversal.
My adult relationship with my aging parents had seen a gradual progression of changes. It began with me driving them to medical appointments, being an extra set of ears to absorb information about diagnoses and medications. Then, as their physical and cognitive abilities diminished, I began to do their shopping and banking errands.
My visits slowly increased from once a week to three or four visits a week, then daily. With love and grace, we gently found our way through those awkward moments when none of us could ignore their growing dependence.
They worried about interfering with my life. At the same time, I was concerned about their well-being, taking on more parent-like responsibilities on their behalf. In some ways, it did seem like we were switching roles.
Recently, though, I had an epiphany about this notion of generational role reversals. I have come to believe that it is more a role shift than a role reversal. Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics, but a shift in role seems quite different from a flip-flop in which the elderly parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent.
There’s an important difference. Unlike a child, an older adult doesn’t come with a blank slate. The elderly parent brings a long history chock-full of experiences.
An older woman has probably diapered children and grandchildren, bandaged knees and cooked countless meals. An elderly father has maintained a career for decades, fixed plumbing and bicycles and grieved the loss of family and friends. Each may now need considerable help with basic daily needs, but an older loved one is not a child.
It tendered my heart to see my mother so fearful of a fancy padded chair with wheels and an electronic keypad. But I soon grasped her greater fear of not being able to learn. She was not like a child, because even with her aging mind, she knew what she didn’t know.
It took a few weeks of slow, repetitive practice, but she did learn to drive the power chair. Now, two years later, she effortlessly turns it around in the center’s elevator and maneuvers it through her apartment.
It’s true that as the aging process continues, the relationship between parent and adult child is forever changed. But to think of an elderly parent as a child is to diminish dignity and respect.
The woman who learned to drive the power chair will always be my parent who instilled values and modeled unconditional love. Over time, I taught my mother how to drive again, but she taught me what it means to face fear with courage and grace.
Ms. Buchanan, a member of FUMC Rockwall, Texas, is the author of Living With Purpose in a Worn Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults (Upper Room Books), due out in 2008.