Middle-aged Children And Elderly Parents

December 06, 1990|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

The children's angry complaints were those of a million adolescents against their parents: My mother doesn't understand me. My mother treats me like a child. She's manipulative; nothing pleases her.

But the group gathered in Odenton this week all had gray hair, and their parents are in their 90s.

As people live longer, the fact of senior citizens caring for their parents becomes the norm, not an exception. But lifelong problems don't necessarily go away with age, and healthy communication becomes even more important, said Katherine Boucher, a family therapist and faculty member at Loyola College in Baltimore, speaking Tuesday at the Odenton O'Malley Senior Center.

In the first of a lecture series on adult children and aging parents, Boucher listened as about 15 seniors present aired their frustrations. The discussion focused on the relationship of the adult daughter to her parents.

"My mother is totally stressing me out," said one woman. "She's not being considerate. She went into the grocery store to get three items and an hour later was still there with her cart full, going through coupons, while I waited an hour in the car. I don't want to hurt her, but she takes advantage of me. My mother has always done her own thing."

Said another woman, "All my life my mother has never been what a mother should be."

A third listener reversed the complaint. She's recently found herself dependent on her family because of a physical condition. The woman's married daughter and family have moved in with her, and she can't get used to playing the role of a child.

"If I give advice, I'm intruding. If I stay in my room, they want to know what the matter is," said the woman, who is in her 60s. "I don't know what (my daughter) wants."

Boucher pointed out that some difficulties between adults and their parents arise because the child is playing so many roles.

"We're the child, but we're also the parent with our parents in some cases, as they age or become ill. And we're parents of our own children. We need to think about how the relationship changes and why, and the communication skills we need," she said.

Before gathering with family members during the holiday season, it's a good idea to review how we communicate with elderly parents and make sure the interchange is healthy, Boucher said. For example, adult children often don't notice that old resentments are surfacing between them and their parents.

"As people get older, things we experienced as young come into play. Old scores come into play. People sometimes reverse situations and do to their parents what their parents did to them," Boucher said.

After a lifetime of dealing with a person's character and personality, the adult child may expect a parent to change because she just can't deal with the parent any more.

"We have to negotiate with who (a mother) is, not what we wish her to be," the therapist explained.

"You don't have to agree. But honest, open communication is always the best way."

Boucher offered these suggestions for adult children: Recognize how you interact with your parents. Set limits; realize you can't control other people. And try to enjoy the time spent with parents.

Many at the lecture complained that their parents don't understand they also have needs. Said another woman, "Our parents have to realize we're in our 60s. We're not teen-agers. I'm getting old. I have to get my sleep.

You've got to tell them that."

But, interjected Boucher, "that doesn't have to be an angry statement."

Defining who we are is an ongoing process and the message may differ with different people. For example, we may be telling our kids we aren't senile yet, and at the same time telling our parents we aren't little kids still.

The therapist also discussed the importance of senior citizens making sure they know how they wish to be cared for if they become unable to live alone. She suggested writing a letter and sending copies to all your children.

Family problems can surface if arrangements haven't been made ahead of time. Eldest children, who may have grown up under rigid discipline, may feel that the younger children should be the caretakers of the parents, Boucher said. "They may think, 'I lived for them before, trying to please them my whole life. It's somebody else's turn.' " The lecture was the first of three sponsored by the senior center this month. The second and third talks on Tuesdays in December will address the son or son-in-law's role in relation to the parents. The last session will focus on changes among communication among the entire family.

One woman at the lecture, Bertha O'Brien, 68, occasionally attends discussions at the senior center. "It helps you to exchange ideas," O'Brien said. "We may have experienced situations but not put them into words. This helps you identify feelings and think about good ways to respond."

The programs are free to anyone 55 or older. Advance registration is requested by calling the O'Malley Center at 621-9515.

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