Thursday, April 23, 2009

Myths of Eldercare

I'm wrapping up this week of blog introduction with a reality hidden beneath the fuss and flurry that is often a caregiver's life. A reality that affects how you and your parent react to the dynamic caregiving situation you both have entered. A reality of which you may be totally unaware.

After the first months of caregiving, as I recognized that my relationship with my ailing mother was more complicated than I ever imagined, I spent a lot of time reading and talking to others about the emotional and relationship side of parentcare.

What I learned along the way was that I had bought into the Myths of Eldercare:

MYTH 1: In all families, parents and children love each other unconditionally.

MYTH 2: No matter the quality of the parenting, parents deserve a child’s unquestioning devotion, duty, love and service.

MYTH 3: Every child is obligated to care for his parents as they age.

MYTH 4: A person honors her parents only if she sacrifices her own life and mental health for the sake of the parent. Without total sacrifice, the child can not be judged as “good”.

Note the "all-or-nothing" quality of each of these myths. They are rarely stated outright and never written down. We breathe them in from our families' actions, conversations with friends, from newspapers and television. The myths invade us as easily as secondhand smoke and become a part of us. And in living, we act as if these myths were immutable laws. They become the bars of a cage, restricting the options we have in life. Often we don’t even think about what we are doing. We just act.

What are the Facts of Eldercare?

FACT 1: Parents and children should love each other unconditionally. But let's be honest, dysfunctional families exist. Even in "normal" families, love's depth and expression are different and different even between each parent and child.

FACT 2: Parents are human, and their love is not always given in a fair or evenhanded manner. Some parents are abusive; some have abandoned their families. Being a parent is no guarantee that a child will offer unquestioning devotion, duty, love and service. (Talk to a teenager sometime for clarification on this point.)

FACT 3: There is no contract or rule that obligates a child to care for an aging parent. The Bible says, “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother,” but it’s vague on how to do that. In any case, you can not mandate love or respect.

FACT 4: Sacrificing your own well-being in caregiving does your parent no good. It drains precious energy away from caregiving and weakens you. To care for someone else, you must first care for yourself.

What I'm asking you to do now is to be honest with yourself. Have you accepted any or all of the myths as Truth? If you have, how might your belief in the myth affect how you talk with your parent, decide priorities in your life?

And just as important...does your parent believe in any of the myths? Does that belief bring with it expectations that you might not be able to meet?

A counselor once told me that 80-90% of our behavior comes from the subconscious, from our instincts, from beliefs deep within us. Until we pull the myths up into our thinking, conscious decision-making brain, we will act on them instinctively, perhaps to our detriment.

What myth do you believe? Is your belief filling you with guilt or with joy in your caring? Do you need to discard that myth for something more realistic, more positive? Is your myth helpful?


  1. Wow, this is a tough one! My personal experience between caring for my own mother and my father-in-law are so different that it is very difficult to respond to these questions. However one thing I do believe is that when it comes to relationships, the success or "failure" is not only determined by the views a person takes into the relationship but how these views are excepted, respected or rejected by the other person. I guess what I am trying to say is that a relationship involves at least two people so the outcomes are effected by at least two people. For myself when matters of elder care have come up this relationship has been even more complicated because it has never been just between myself and the parent but also involves an number of other relationships such as other siblings and extended family. Although I totally agree that tension between myself and the parent arise from the expectations each partner goes into the relationship with, for myself, the larger conflicts are created between the variety of views each of these other players also bring to the table. Let me reflect on the myths outlined above and I will get back to you. These is a great topic and I am looking forward to entering into this discussion.

  2. I feel foolish because it has been so long since I first started this response. But ironically, one of the reasons I have been away soon long is because I felt needed to help care for my mother as she had her cataracts removed. Caring for a parent while still raising teenagers while working in a caring profession and trying to meet my own personal needs for spiritual growth comes with many demands. I find my time sacred and not enough to go around. Instead of taking each myth one by one, let me give an overview of what I believe.
    I believe that parent-child relationships are very unique, there is no "one fits all" description. I do not believe in a "sense of duty" but I do believe that we are all called to help those in need, not because they are our parent but because they are part of the human family. I also believe that the "parent" needs to be given the right to voice his/her concerns or preference and that the caring adult child does not have the right to disregard the wishes of the elder parent unless their wishes place them in danger. In my opinion, being responsible for or even having legal "power of attorney" for an aging parent does not give the caring adult child the right to make decisions without speaking one-on-one with the parent. As I spoke with professionals in the field of geriatrics, I was told that even in cases of alzheimer's/dementia, the aging parent is considered to have periods of stable mental health and need to be included in all decision making. I believe guidance for my belief does come from my religious beliefs and is grounded in scripture. I believe in Jesus' message for "an option for the poor and the vulnerable" .
    For myself, the myth I hold that gets me in trouble the most is that others(typically the extended family) will understand my position and buy into it. The path I choice is very challenging and I have learned to reach out beyond extended family for the support I need. Entering into these situations, I do not expect things to work out smoothly. It is hard for an aging parent to accept direction from an adult child. I do believe we are asked to make sacrifices that may alter our own life directions but not to the extent that damage is done to our own personhood. Even in very extraneous relationships one could use the passage "love thy enemy" Just like any relationship, this relationship calls for adjustment from all parties. Also, just like any other family arrangement, boundaries and guidelines must be establish that foster continued growth for all parties. I value Walter Wink's explanation of the passage "turning the other cheek" in his book "The Powers That Be . . ." He explains we are not called to be passive but defiant in abusive relationships. In Jesus' time, turning the other cheek meant humiliating those who thought they had power over you by taking way the opportunity for them to strike you because striking the left cheek was considered unclean on the part of the aggressor. Anyway, the bottom line is these relationships are sticky and messy. For myself, I need to act as I feel I am called. I think this is true for others as well. We are not all expected to react or act in the same way in every situation. That is what makes life so rich. Everyone involved in caring for an aging parent whether it is in their home, the parent's home or from a distance is going to find their life effected in some way and in need of support, a shoulder to lean on. One that is empathetic and not judgmental.