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June 29, 2015 at 4:21 PMComments: 1 Faves: 0

The Circle of Life: Caring For Our Parents

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I celebrated a birthday last weekend. While it was a day with neither the birthday song nor a cake with candles, it was one of the most memorable and insightful of these 44 milestone days I have had to date.

To the rest of the world though, it was a day like any other. 

I got out of bed and did my bathroom chores. I put on clothes just like every other day. I was in my car, and before the rest of my family was awake, I made my way to the hospital. This day there were no doctor's rounds or meetings though.

Today, I was visiting my mother. 

Mom had fallen a few days before and needed some significant help, including a surgery. I walked in her room with a decaf mocha drink for her and she opened her eyes from the haze of pain medication to thank me. There we sat, mother and son, an intimate time. In fact, the closeness of this time took me back to another I could not have possibly remembered, to another hospital where we had both been together before. "44 today, Mom!"

Truth be told, she had forgotten it was my birthday - but considering the circumstances it was completely forgivable. I, myself, had practically forgot, sandwiched between a kid graduating high school and other end-of-year activities atop my mom's issues. With some prompting, though, she related how that morning 44 years ago she had pushed me into this world.  She talked about the pain, the doctor, the surreal experience, and again the pain.

She had made me. Her body put me together and then, no small task, she brought me into life. But that was just the beginning. I reflected on my time of total dependency on her - for food, for warmth, and, of course, for diaper changes. I rebelled a bit in my twos and then again in my teens, but she was there no matter the burden. 

In this epiphany, she needed to get up and go to the bathroom before her physical therapy.  She needed my help. How much clearer could it be to a son reflecting on the cycle of life and family? 

It is... my turn to be depended on.

I walked away from that moment and into a new chapter of my life. I am a helper. Looking to my own children, I reflected that there was no bitterness about the care they required. Was it because they were so cute? Was it because I made them and felt the responsibility unconditionally? Was it because they were under my roof and not across town or in another state?

In society, we tend to look at the care of our elders and parents with a sense of burden. We tend to resent their forgetfulness and repetition of stories or requests. In our haste, we tend toward impatience with their slowness. It is difficult for us to understand that their day could be consumed with a few chores which would barely make our radar amidst the chaos we find ourselves in. 

Let us not forget as children, that in most cases they put us here, and in most cases with a willing heart. They stood before everyone and claimed us as theirs. They did the same for us as we do for our children. Sure, they may have made some regrettable errors along the way or could have done their job better. And they may suffer from a heavy dose of pride, finding it difficult to receive after a life of giving. I will go out on a limb and say that we owe it to them to anyhow - the caring with love, the preservation of dignity and the assistance that comes with advancing age.

If your parents are healthy, enjoy them, but plan for the future.

Have those critical conversations about their plans and goals in the advancing years. You don't need to plan on making your house into a nursing home, but talks about care and outlining desires and expectations are important during times of sound mind and health. You don't need to be a medical professional to provide care. Discuss a living will and a durable power of attorney if they cannot make decisions for themselves. Ask them about their goals too. It's also important to help them fulfill their legacy and feel accomplished. (Perhaps you have already helped them fulfill this by making them proud or giving them the grandchildren whom they love fiercely?) 

As a family doctor who also works in hospice and home care, I can tell you that a turn from full functionality to a need for help and care can come like a thief in the night leaving families in difficult positions. Open communication is the best way to be there as a caring individual for parents.   

Life is a circle. Do on to others as we would want done unto ourselves. It really is that simple.  When family works through the different stages, it is a beautiful, tolerant and sustaining thing.

Live, and live well.

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