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Offering an Aging Parent Grace and Space: How to Walk That Delicate Line When It Comes to Being Your Parent’s Caregiver

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Even in the best of circumstances, caregiving can be a significant emotional burden – and often a physical one as well. But when an adult child is caring for an aging parent, the burden takes on added challenges. Actual numbers are hard to come by but research indicates that there are roughly 66 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S., and most of those care for an aging relative, often a parent. It’s easy to see how the role of being mom or dad’s caregiver turns the parent-child relationship on its head.

In this insightful article from NextAvenuereporter and author Amy McVay Abbott – a woman who knows what it is to care for a parent while dealing with health issues of her own – describes the struggle to offer both “grace” and “space” in being her dad’s caregiver. There are times when she needs to show grace by being actively involved in the decisions he makes, or wants to make. But at other times dad needs the space to be an adult and age on his own terms. Coming to grips with that balance is the thrust of Abbott’s article.

Dad’s Desire to Travel Creates a Dilemma

As relayed in her NextAvenue article, this exchange between Abbott and her dad pretty well sums up the dilemma of the parent-child caregiving dynamic. “My 92-year-old father announced that he and his 86-year-old girlfriend, sporting a brand-new titanium knee, were going to a state park for a three-day visit in the fall,” Abbott writes. “‘Dad,’ I asked him, ‘how will you get your luggage from the gravel parking lot and up the steps to the state park inn?’”

As independent as ever, and a seasoned traveler all of his adult life, her dad replied, “We’ve already thought of that. We’ll take small bags and put them on our walkers.” But Abbott wasn’t convinced. After all, her father’s ability to stand independently and walk comfortably had severely diminished. As Abbott quips, “I could see a problem with it.”

This state park trip discussion was one of many that Abbott had not quite been prepared for in caring for her father after her mother passed away. “My younger brother and I communicate daily and go back and forth between Good Cop and Bad Cop with our father,” she writes. “My remaining parent is frail, forgetful and feisty. I have a lung disease that limits my mobility and travel. However, many baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964,  still have a living parent as they themselves struggle with aging issues.” 

The Grace to Let Our Dad Be Independent

Overall, Abbott and her brother try to focus on gratitude that their father is still with them and able to celebrate milestones such as becoming a great-grandfather. “For the most part,” she writes, “we try to give Dad the space and grace he deserves.”

But the dilemma remains: how to give him space and grace, while also keeping him safe from poor judgment calls? She writes, “Dad wants and deserves a whole life, and his children, my baby brother and me, don’t want to deprive him. Dad was in good health until about two years ago. He exercised and extensively used a stair stepper. Today his physical and mental health fades, and we are also concerned that he can put himself — and others — in danger.”

The Challenge of Travel

In 2019, Abbott took her father to visit his elder grandson in Washington, D.C. The trip was fraught with difficulties from the start, since Abbott herself uses oxygen therapy with a portable compressor (plus a purse that weighs excess of 25 pounds) and isn’t able to comfortably walk long distances.

“Dad and I checked our bags,” she recalls. “I paid for the airport concierge service, and a valet pushed Dad in a wheelchair, carry-on in his lap. I couldn’t keep up and ambled along, reaching the two of them at the gate. I arranged for a car to pick us up at baggage because there was no way I could handle Dad, his cane, two bags, my oxygen, my accursed purse and Dad’s carry-on.”

Since Abbott’s son doesn’t own or use a car, and the Metro with its long escalators was not feasible for Abbott’s father’s balance, they had to use Über to get around. “The trip was exceedingly challenging, and I was exhausted when we returned,” she writes. “This was the third time I had taken Dad to D.C.” She says she doesn’t plan to try it again.

In hindsight Abbott was glad that they made the journey, and felt that, overall, they had what they needed as far as accommodations. But it became clear to her that her father was simply unable to travel as comfortably or safely as he used to, and she wasn’t able to support him in light of her own health issues.

Explaining to Dad that Travel Days are Behind Him

“I cannot do it again,” she writes, “it’s easier for the grandchildren to visit Dad, where he lives. I am sad for him, but I believe his traveling days are done, and mine are limited.” Between her oxygen equipment and her husband’s diabetes, Abbott writes, flying is impossible – and driving, in her words, “makes us feel like a M*A*S*H* unit bugging out of South Korea.”

Moreover, the physical limitations aren’t the only problem. There are also cognitive signs that her father is unable to travel. “There have been multiple episodes that I consider evidence in this verdict that Dad should no longer travel,” Abbott writes. “He and his girlfriend went to their county fair, where they forgot where they had parked. The police had to help them find the car.” 

She adds, “Another time, when he still had a car, he rarely drove it, and the battery ran down. Somehow that impaired the automatic lock system, and he got in the car to go somewhere, and it wouldn’t start, nor could he get out. His car was parked inside a carport, and it was hours before someone saw him motioning inside the vehicle.”

Did he have a cell phone? Of course. But it was where he always kept it: in the trunk of the car. “My brother and I constantly reminded him to keep the phone in his pocket,” Abbott writes, “to no avail.”

Dad’s Care is a Question of Judgment

While her dad no longer drives, his girlfriend does, and this also gives Abbott concerns. “The trip to the state park is about sixty miles one way,” she writes. “Whether she drives or not is technically none of our business. That our father rides with us is our business.”

But with the boundaries she sets come waves of guilt. Neither Abbott and nor her brother are able to take their father on as many trips as they would like. “We cannot prevent him from breaking a hip, but we certainly don’t need to encourage it,” she writes.

“Nevertheless,” she adds, with an almost audible sigh behind the words, “we are tired of fighting with him, so we’ve surrendered: I will call the state park several days before their arrival and give management a heads up over their fragility. And my brother will rescue them if something happens.”

With agreement comes even more concerns. For example, the park doesn’t have a maximum age limit on horseback riding, something her father certainly shouldn’t attempt. “Am I wrong to express this concern?” Abbott wonders. “Should our grace to him extend to something my brother and I feel is entirely unsafe for Dad?”

But the balance of grace and space is not precise, and Abbott understands that, owing to her own limitations. “You can’t go zip-lining over a canyon while wearing an oxygen compressor,” she writes. “How mad would I be if my adult son needed to point this out to me? So, we err on the side of grace and space, and then cross our fingers and ourselves, praying that nothing bad happens.”

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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