One of the toughest things in my elder law practice is to get the sons and daughters of an incapacitated parent ready to face this truth:
The kids are now the “parents” to their parents.
Just what does this mean? Well, for openers, it means that the kids now are the ones responsible for the health and well-being of their parents. It means that the kids will make decisions for their parents that involve things like “Where will mom or dad live?” “How (or what) will they eat?” “How much (if any) freedom will mom or dad have to go where they want, when they want, by means of their own choosing.
Being a Parent to one’s own Parent requires a real stretch of thought and a complete reordering of one’s own thoughts about such things. Just think about it. You’ve been taught from childhood on up to “listen to your parents,” “honor and obey your father and your mother,” “respect your elders.” This type of conditioning, ingrained in us for our entire lifetimes, has become second nature. And now, the declining health, mental horsepower, and energy of a parent may require that we gently put all those teachings about obedience aside in favor of making decisions which will affect and control their lives.
Why must we become our parents’ parents? Well, if we don’t do it, who will? And besides, hasn’t the human lifespan become long enough to create a certain balance and fairness. Think about it. When we were born, we were totally helpless. We couldn’t feed ourselves. We couldn’t even walk. Who was there to see to it that we learned those lessons, and many more? That’s right, it was our moms and dads, grandparents, sometimes aunts and uncles who cared for us and made sure that we learned enough so that we could live “out in the wild” on our own?
And now, with parents living long enough to become gradually helpless, doesn’t simple balance and fairness require us to return the favor?
The job—like any job of real value—isn’t always easy. If you have kids of your own, think back to the times when you ordered them to do (or not do) something. They might have responded with something like, “I hate you.” Now ask yourself, “Would I have changed what I wanted my kid to do (or not do) just because they would he or she wouldn’t like me?” Of course you wouldn’t, because as a parent, you were charged to do what was right by your kid.
Like it or not, the same is gradually becoming true today.
So to each of you who is gradually taking on the task, I wish you all the best in being a Good Parent to your Parents. To be sure, it’s a thankless job, just as many of the struggles we’ve had in parenting our kids has been thankless, too, but also worthwhile and necessary.
Besides, if not us, then who?