So, I’ve received a number of really nice comments from the last post reflecting on my Dad having to give up his driver’s license. As in many of the very kind responses I’ve gotten over the past couple of years, the writers have complimented my even-handedness and equilibrium, my ability to see the experience through my father’s eyes. It’s been wonderful to hear what a candidate for a karma upgrade I am, repeatedly, from both friends and complete strangers.
Wonderful, that is, until I go through 15 minutes of head-splitting anger that sends my blood pressure soaring toward 200 and brings thoughts of nursing-home referrals and door-lock changes to the fore. As I was talking myself down from just such an experience this afternoon, I realized the disservice I might have done others who are now or have been a caregiver for a parent. In all my fairness and reflection, I’ve neglected discussing the anger that can be one of the most elemental aspects of parental caregiving.
So, I want to set my – and, perhaps, your – story straight. One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to deal with is how angry I can become at my father when he uses me as the target for his frustration at the debilitations of aging.
I think this is a really important admission, because so many outside this process seem to ignore the humanity of the caregiver in an effort to turn the caregiving experience into some sort of Norman Rockwell depiction of the virtues of compassion. Express regret over wages lost/relationships battered/a shredded sense of self, and these judges can come down on your head like Yahweh on the Israelites in the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments.
As an example, consider reaction to a recent post by Jane Gross in the NY Times “New Old Age” blog. Gross, who founded the blog (Paula Span is now its editor), has just written a book, “A Bittersweet Season,” and the post describes her frustration at the way taking care of an aging someone else can eat away at one’s own time and sense of self. It was also tough and cutting to the bone – as this excerpt shows:
But the constancy of an aging parent’s needs, and the fact that they cannot be answered quickly or fully or sometimes at all, takes its toll. It amazes me that flat out black-and-blue abuse of the elderly happens only rarely, given the level of frustration and exhaustion that sometimes overtakes caregivers. Somehow, very, very few lose control in that way. That we so often hear of the exceptional cases is, I think, both a misrepresentation of what actually is going on out there in the world and an implied insult to all caregivers — especially those who watch over family members with Alzheimer’s, who hold it all together amid circumstances one would think might sink them.
This is true to my life and to that of many of the post’s commenters also in the middle of this process. What was incredibly difficult to read, though, were the great number of incredibly cold – and even hurtful – responses to Gross’ honest, to-the-bone description of the almost-physical holding back of anger/frustration/exhaustion caregivers may have to exercise on themselves.
And, so, in full disclosure, I share… Without his license, my father is slowly becoming a time tyrant. It’s only been two weeks, so we haven’t had a chance yet to fully explore transport options, but this is largely due to my father’s unwillingness to put a dime toward his own transportation. He sold the car, and, so, no longer has the expense of gas and insurance. Plus, he pocketed a few thousand dollars in the transaction. Yet, this morning he informed me of his need to get a haircut this afternoon. Nope, I said, I had another obligation late afternoon, followed by Day 2 of my town’s annual Town Meeting (a New England rite, which all who advocate fully participatory democracy should experience as a reality check to their beliefs). Tomorrow afternoon at 4, then? O.k., but I’ve got a dentist appointment, so you’ll have to hang out at the Dunkin Donuts for a while.
An hour later, I was shuttling him over to the senior center for his game of poker when he said he needed to hit the liquor store for Scotch, “since we were headed that direction” – it’s a mile, each way, further from the senior center. I agreed, but then began expressing that we needed to start exploring transportation options that didn’t include me as a chauffeur. “I need to get out of the house!” “I understand that, Dad, but I need to work. We’ve gotten a referral to a very nice woman who is only $15 an hour – she can take you wherever you want to go.” “Well, one of my poker buddies said he’ll take me around.” “I know Dad, you said that two weeks ago, but he hasn’t stepped up at all since then. We need some real solutions.”
Fortunately, by then we’d reached the senior center and he was out the door and on his way to another afternoon of losing hands. I headed home with three pages of angry dialog spilling out of my mouth toward the father who wasn’t there to hear it, and that not-thereness seemed to push every worn-but-not-broken button in the teenage psyche still inside me. I’ve not wished physical abuse on my father – but emotional abuse? The urge to shout out every shortcoming, every hurt inflicted, to make him feel my frustration – my overwhelming anger – can burn white hot on occasions like this one.
Now, I can already imagine the reactions of those who might also criticize Gross – get over it, they need you, they were there for you then. But what if they weren’t there for you? What if your mother couldn’t find a kind word to say to you, or your father traveled two weeks of every month and spent the other two weeks on the golf course and in the 19th Hole? What if poor financial planning and a lack of other options were bigger contributors to a situation than a mutually caring relationship? Or, what if, even though your parent was loving and supportive in every way, you also have three kids in middle school, a demanding boss and a spouse who’s about to lose a job – and the thought of now having to address the latest in a growing list of parental needs is the last possible thing you can handle?
Flipping back, now, to reflective Chuck… this is truly a through-the-looking-glass experience for both parties. My father looks at me and sees an active, engaged, involved younger self he’s growing farther away from being almost every hour. In his eyes, it was me, personally, who took the license from his wallet and forced the sale of his car, so I should be the one to take that car’s place. I look at him depending on me, and wonder – what the heck were you ever doing for me when you were 51 and I was 13 that came anywhere close to what I’m doing for you now. In other words, I look at him and see my 13-year-old self staring back, along with my potentially 89-year-old self – a man without a son behind him to help pick up the pieces.