Role Reversal

Role Reversal
After my mother moved to Ohio, and after she relinquished her driver’s license, she became very dependent on me. Mother never depended on anyone but herself her entire life. In her former life (as I like to say) mother was self-sufficient, stubborn, and controlling. The dependency role was a new one for her and one with which I was very uncomfortable.

Because I handled all of her financial affairs and drove her to the grocery store and appointments, she elevated me to the position of parent while she reverted to the position of child. Taking on this new position was difficult for me. Mother looked to me for all the decisions--large and small. My sister had come to visit and wanted to take mother out for the day. Mother told my sister she had to call me and make sure it was okay. Good grief! I tried to make light of it, “Mother, I think it really is okay to spend the day with your daughter. You don’t need my permission.” She didn’t get it. She had lost all confidence in herself.

Being the single parent of two children, I was quite familiar with parenting responsibilities. I was not familiar with using those skills with an 82-year-old woman. It’s one thing to tell your teenager to take a shower--it’s a totally different thing to tell your mother to take a shower. Over the years, mother stopped all daily “maintenance” activities. She never combed or washed her hair. She wore the same clothes for a week at a time. She never vacuumed her apartment and never dusted anything. She refused to take a shower because she doesn’t like to take showers. She only likes baths. The apartment where she lived did not have a bathtub for safety reasons. Mother’s solution was to take a “sponge bath” in the bathroom sink. Believe me--a woman (or man) is not able to clean herself (or himself) appropriately in a sink!

While the role reversal between us was bad enough, even more difficult to accept was the mental age to which mother had regressed. I felt as if I were dealing with a five-year-old. The dementia progressed relatively quickly making logical communication impossible. In addition to the financial responsibilities and the shopping duties, I eventually had to clean mother’s apartment and do her laundry as well. Mother’s survival depended on my care. Following are some of the “tricks” I learned in dealing with an 82-year-old child.

Just because she was unable to think for herself, she was still my mother and an adult. I had to learn not to talk down to her. Although it might take numerous attempts to get a message through, I still tried to talk to her on an adult level. I also made a conscious effort not to speak for her. If we went to a restaurant or the doctor’s office, I forced myself to let her do the talking. However, with the doctor, if I noticed she was having difficulty explaining an issue, I helped her along without taking over the conversation. At mother’s current age of 91, I find myself having to speak on her behalf most of the time. When asked a question, she just stares at the speaker absently.

In my parental role, I tried not to scold. Instead of saying the things I really wanted to say, I made a conscious effort to speak with kindness. Instead of “When was the last time you changed your clothes?”--I would say, “How about if we put on a clean shirt? It looks like maybe you spilled something on the front of you.” Usually, she would look surprised and say, “Really? I didn’t notice.” Then she would sometimes ask if she should change her slacks as well and I would take that opportunity to say “Good idea!”

Refraining from anger was always the better approach when dealing with my mother. Believe me--she made me angry on many occasions, but I used every ounce of willpower I could muster to keep my voice controlled and unemotional. Otherwise, mother would just dig her heels in and the situation would be out of control in a heartbeat. After such an altercation, in which I acted with complete aplomb, I would leave her house and go through the drive-thru at McDonald’s to assuage my anger with a Big Mac and fries. This did nothing to improve my waistline, but it sure helped calm me down on my ride h

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