Just when one thinks life is free of dependents (children), aging parents suddenly need care. As my children became independent grown ups, my mother entered her second childhood. Her memory failed and she bravely kept up appearances by inventing what she could no longer remember. She invented a full time job, lovers, ‘new’ children and riches. As she got into debt I had to step in and take control of her decisions and her debts. Her decisions had included giving her goods and property to sycophants and her debts accrued from paying for expensive presents, meals and exotic holidays for her friends. I became her legal guardian and in doing so took on the role of parent. She is now 89 years old and lives in a care home and I frequently make the mistake when phoning the home of saying ‘this is her mother speaking’ rather than ‘her daughter’. She enjoys life at the home and has become particularly fond of gin and tonic, for which we often go to the pub near her nursing home. She loves it. But as soon as we return to the home she immediately says ‘can we go out and have a gin and tonic’ and does not believe me when I say that we have done just that. At Christmas with the family, we sang carols and she joined in. Every ten minutes or so, she would say: can we sing ‘Away in a Manger?’, which we all sang again and again. But for her, it was the first time every time. And she was able to enjoy the singing afresh on each occasion. The wondrousness of Christmas did not cease all day, indeed she reopened her presents several times and was delighted each time. However, for the carer, the joys of observing these simple pleasures are tempered by the need to care in more practical ways: help with going to the toilet, stopping her picking up rubbish in the street, trying to stop her steeling food off other people’s plates or dumping her own unwanted (chewed) food around the table. We are slowly moving on to mashed up food and protection pads (large ‘nappies’). She is also getting smaller (shorter and frailer). I suppose we have reached a ‘toddler’ stage, I do not look forward to her next regression: babyhood!
Relationships between parent and child are always ambiguous. I have mixed feeling about looking after my mother. There is the delight of watching her being happy and having fun. As for example observing a singing game in her care home and her childlike delight in catching the ball and singing the songs. This was like watching my own children perform at school: I felt filled with pride at my mother’s achievements. At the same time I resent the time I have to spend on her affairs (bank business, tax, papers and correspondence relating to her career). My mother had a very successful career and all her life put her career first and therefore her children second. As children we were largely left to our own devices and were sent away to camps in school holidays. We did not have family holidays (she worked all the time) and few family celebrations (Christmas or birthdays) because work came first. Nevertheless, I now feel the need to look after her in a way she did not look after me. I don’t ‘owe’ her anything but I do want to see her comfortable and happy. This is odd and yet at the same time gives me some measure of satisfaction. This leave me musing about parent/children relationships and I now wonder how my children will feel about me when I reach 89?
Visiting contributor: Annie Forsyth, 5th January 2010
Annie Forsyth is recently retired and lives in South West London. She worked in the public sector all her working life. She has three children who are grown up, a husband who isn’t, and a mother who has entered her second childhood and lives in a nursing home in London.