Role reversal

Issue: BCMJ, Vol. 60, No. 2, March 2018, page(s) 76 Editorials
David R. Richardson, MD

I was an active child, or should I confess that perhaps “clumsy” would be a better description? I always seemed to be falling and would often lead with my least valuable body part—my head. I cut my chin jumping into a pool backwards, opened my scalp twice on the stone fireplace hearth, split my eyebrow on a door frame, and had my forehead skewered by a shovel held by my father. He may or may not have told me to get out of the sandbox while he topped up the level. On these instances, and on many more, my father would patiently load me into the car and take me to get sutured. I was a “frequent flyer”; I even had a hospital points card. My dad looked out for me (except for that time with the shovel) as parents do.

If you look up what it means to be a good parent, words like listening, teaching, understanding, patience, love, and caring are frequently mentioned. These words certainly describe my mother and father. I have tried to emulate my parents’ example in raising my own children and am proud of the people they have become (not sure this has much to do with me; I failed quite a few times in the patience and understanding categories). I now watch in admiration as my children raise my grandchildren using the tools handed down from generation to generation.

Aging is an inevitable part of life. My parents are now in their 80s and are facing new challenges. They are beginning to need help with health care and mobility. Their independence is threatened and the upkeep of the family home is becoming too much for them. They are faced with considering a move to a facility where their needs can be met. I am sure all of this is a bit overwhelming. I’m not sure how I will handle this issue when I reach this point (which is in doubt due to my clumsiness). Contemplating a lack of control over my life and living situation isn’t a pleasant thought.

Last week, for the first time ever I took my dad to visit his physician. This role reversal of supporting aging parents comes with many challenges that no one prepares you for. It is a little like becoming a parent to your parents, but not exactly. With children you have more control over their actions and decisions. Parents seem to have a mind of their own and often ignore their children’s advice. The nerve to think that the years they have lived lead to any wisdom in the decision making process! My parents will phone asking for help on a health-related issue. After some discussion, during which I remind them that I am a physician, we agree on a plan that they then ignore because they think they know better. It’s not like I can send them to their room for a time-out for disobeying. How am I going to enforce loss of TV or computer privileges?

I’m not prepared for this new chapter in my relationship with my parents, but I’m not sure anyone is. However, I do have faith that with love and patience and a little bit of humor we will safely navigate these uncharted waters together.