Heart-rending parent-child role reversal

Watching the orthodontist insert the first clear aligner into my son’s mouth, slipping it easily into place over his upper teeth, sparked vivid memories. Years spent with shiny metal bands, clamped and cemented around every single tooth, connected by sharp wires and zigzagging rubber bands came rushing back.

Nagging discomfort, hurtful nicknames, and haunting nightmares where all my teeth fell out or rotted under the bands, were commonplace from the age of nine to 15.

But one image swept all the others away. There was Dad — who accompanied me to every appointment — sitting close by, his face troubled as he observed me wincing while the orthodontist adjusted my braces, the tears trickling down his cheeks. Somehow knowing he recognized the pain I was enduring made the whole ordeal bearable. His empathy gave me the courage to be brave.

Lately, I find my parents frequently inhabiting my thoughts and featured in my memories. They have lived on their own for 36 years. The past 24 were spent in a house at the end of a country lane where they moved to be closer to their seven grandchildren, all of whom they have provided care for at one time or another. Earlier this year, Mom was diagnosed with late onset, early-to-moderate-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Prior to this diagnosis, Dad had taken on more and more responsibility for the daily chores. Mom had gradually lost interest in activities that, for a lifetime, had defined her — cooking, baking, cake decorating, sewing, gardening, and socializing. The time had come to make some difficult decisions regarding my parent’s living arrangements.

After a period of investigation and soul searching, my two sisters and I presented our parents with what we considered to be their two most viable options. They could take up residence in a retirement community or move in with one of us. They were swift and decisive in reporting their preference was to move in with one of us. Having anticipated their choice, my younger sister had already begun making arrangements for them to live with her. With an elderly-friendly floor plan and convenient access to their doctors, her house made the most sense. My older sister and I both committed to providing shuttle service, assisting with meals, as well as, just generally supplying assistance and lending support as needed.

With a decision made, it was necessary to design and implement a plan of action with a timeline that fit everyone’s schedule. The next four months were spent sifting through the combined accumulation of two individuals after a 61-year history together. The process of sorting what to keep, what to give to children and grandchildren, what to donate, what to recycle, and what to throw out was fraught with memories. Misplaced treasures were rediscovered. Past events were recollected. Family stories were retold. That which had been forgotten was remembered.

During this period of transition, I have experienced the full gamut of human emotions. From being thrilled to find heirloom photographs to being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of paraphernalia. From laughing hysterically at the contents of long-stored boxes to shedding tears as sewing notions and kitchen utensils — no longer to be held by my mother’s skillful hands — are packed away. From the comforting scene of my father doting on my mother to the heartbreaking realization that eventually she may not recognize him. Combined with the relief of having them comfortably settled in a safe place is the anxiety associated with the uncertainty of their fragile health. Emboldened by my parents’ willingness to adapt, I choose to adopt an optimistic spirit and take things the only way they come — one day at a time.

Reaching the point in time when a parent’s competence and abilities are compromised can be awkward. Finding a way to suggest to my 86-year-old father that he should limit his driving, while preserving his dignity, requires finesse. Casually assisting my mother with routine tasks that have become confusing, without causing embarrassment, takes patience. Helping my parents process information and make reasonable decisions, while maintaining a respectful tone, demands a calm presence of mind.

Moving into the role of caregiver for my parents has been an enlightening and humbling experience. As I cautiously walk with them, one on each arm into the doctor’s office, they thank me for arranging to accompany them to their appointments. I recall for them the many times they did the same for me. As I fill their plates and serve them dinner, they express their appreciation. I remind them of the untold times they did the same for me. As I drive them from the grocery to the bank to the pharmacy to complete their errands, they convey their gratitude. I reflect upon the countless times they did the same for me.

Like all parents, my parents are not perfect. They did the best they could with what they knew. While their methods were sometimes questionable, their love was never in doubt. When it really mattered, they were the parents I needed them to be. Now I intend to be the daughter they need me to be.

Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years as a family therapist and parent educator, and she has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, e-mail parent4lif[email protected]oo.com.