Human beings have to let go of many things, places, and people through their lives. At times that’s easy, mostly it’s hard. As we grow older there is even more to relinquish before that final good-bye – youth, energy, sleeping through nights, vision and hearing, sometimes health. Dylan Thomas wrote, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.” I can empathize with those sentiments, but I prefer to think of aging with grace rather than with rage. Perhaps all the smaller instances of letting go are preparation, helping us learn how to let go for the big one.
I’ve written before about dealing with aging parents. I’ve been trying to find ways to cope, trying to achieve understanding that might make me look more kindly on the way some people live in their latter years. Those who have lost their parents earlier may think me lucky to have mine around for so long. I think of my mother telling me, “Don’t get old.” To me that statement reflects her unhappiness, but happiness is subjective and perhaps I’m making a judgement that isn’t so for her.
Not all women get along with their mothers. I’ve been one of the ones who didn’t. I know that in some ways we are alike – our stubbornness, and our criticalness, for example. I have a lot of bad memories from throughout my life of my mother. My mother was not the sort of woman to think before she spoke and she still isn’t. Hurtful words can’t be taken back. I think I learned from her the kind of mother I didn’t want to be. Which is not to say that things were all bad. She walked me to school in the first days of elementary school. Sang to me when I was young. Sewed clothes for me in high school.
I’m the eldest daughter, which made me the most likely to care for my parents as they grew older, stopped driving, and needed more help. For most of that time, I’ve also been the one who lived closest to them. My brothers did and do help, but they live farther away. My mother got in the habit of phoning me if she needed something, or if she wanted to talk about her problems. I still didn’t like many of her behaviours, wouldn’t have spent time with her if she wasn’t my mother, but I felt a duty to help an aging woman who didn’t seem very happy. When the time came to sell their house my brothers and I helped them move into seniors’ housing, and then I helped them sell the house. Later, in their new place, I arranged for homecare cleaning once a week and a nurse to come once a month. When my mother talked about wanting to go back to a church she’d been away from for years, I contacted the minister and arranged for a home visit. I drove my parents to medical appointments. Often spent a few days near Christmas with them, though I found that extremely trying as my mother was often nagging and cantankerous. During all this time my mother rarely showed much appreciation or understanding for the time I took from my own life to help her and my father. She seemed to take me for granted. Mostly I swallowed my resentment, though recently I’d told her a couple of times about things she’d said or done that hurt me. She didn’t respond very satisfactorily; told me once that she thanked God every night for what I did for them.
Things came to a head recently with some financial issues. I did a lot of work making contacts and doing research, planned to meet with my parents and their accountant. Subsequently, my mother phoned me several times questioning why I was coming to this meeting and asking what I could possibly do? She said that she could handle things. When I told her about taxes owing, she became confused about the process for paying and no matter how I tried to explain, insisted that she knew what to do, though it was obvious she didn’t. I said that if she wasn’t happy with me, maybe she should get someone else to handle things. Finally, I asked myself why I was putting myself through this – sleepless nights, digestive disturbances, stress. So the next phone call from my mother, I said that if she really didn’t want me to come to the meeting with the accountant, I wouldn’t. Subsequently, I told my brothers that I could no longer deal with my mother and was turning things over to them.
I’ve been looking for a long time for books about this stage of life, trying to understand what might be happening to my mother. She is still independent in many ways, but stubborn as she’s been most of her life, and insisting that she can do things it’s obvious she can’t handle. In my estimation her judgement is faulty. She has also lied, and often twisted events, recalling them in ways that didn’t happen.
I think my mother didn’t have a particularly happy childhood, and it seems she didn’t learn good parenting or social skills. I’ve also learned that people into their eighties and nineties often want to retain independence, and deny that they need help even if it’s obvious that they do.
I found a couple of articles about letting go of aging parents when they are still alive:
I realized that although my circumstances and my parents’ are somewhat different than the above, I had to let go also. I had too many years of doing things to help (in my opinion) make life better for my parents, and not getting recognition or appreciation for it, while I was really not enjoying spending time with my mother. Perhaps it was time I let my mother have complete charge of her own life and let her find others in the family or community to meet her needs. So far the issues I’d been trying to help with had not been about safety, after all, but quality of life.
Subsequently, I found an article in the Journal of Marriage and Family (August 1999) that further illuminated the dynamics between me and my mother. It’s called, “The Micropolitics of Care in Relationships Between Aging Parents and Adult Children: Individualism, Collectivism, and Power.” An abstract of the article is available at:
Essentially, the researchers found that Exchange Theory applied in most situations between aging parents and adult children. If both were able to get enough of what they needed (e.g. recognition, appreciation, deference on the one hand; and independence and a measure of control on the other) things would go relatively smoothly. If one or both sides did not get what they needed, the system of care taking and help broke down.
In thinking about this, it seems to me that my mother wants her independence though realizing at times that she needs help. She both needs help and resents having to have it. I’m sure I haven’t been as diplomatic as I could be at times in letting her know that she is capable, and yet needs help with some things. For me, there have been too many years of this. I feel sad at times, but also angry about all this. Some guilt, some relief.
For now, I need to keep distance between my mother and me. I need time to let go of anger, and sort through other feelings, figure out what kind of relationship if any, I can have with my mother. She’s not going to change – can I find a way to relate to her despite that?
I will continue to search for articles and books, try to understand this thing called aging, because I want to find a way for myself to age with grace and diplomacy.