Parents Struggle With Being Cared For By Kids

Adult children caring for elderly parents may feel guilty, isolated and resentful. But some parents being cared for do too. Dr. Lillian Rubin knows that struggle well, as she has found herself at odds with her well-meaning daughter over what her daughter wants for her, and what she actually needs.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan.

Last week, we seemed to have touched a nerve when we had Sandra Tsing Loh on. She talked about how taking care of her 91-year-old father not only does not fulfill her in the slightest, but actually leaves her feeling angry and resentful, both for the imposition of that responsibility at this point in her life and also for the guilt she feels for having those very same feelings. We heard from so many people after the program who are facing the same thing, but we also heard from the people who live on the other side of the equation - the older parents who need the care and who are depending on their kids. And some of them told us, it's not so fulfilling for them either.

We took note of an article on Salon.com by Dr. Lillian Rubin. She is 88 years old, and she is seeing in herself the decline that comes with age. And just recently, she has also given up the keys to her car, and we all get what that means in itself. That is the other side of the story, or one of them. Well, we want to hear from you on this topic right now. If you are an older parent in this position, the position of a role reversal where you are becoming the dependent, our question to you is, what do you want your kids to understand? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, Dr. Lillian Rubin joins us from studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Lillian, thanks so much for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

DR. LILLIAN RUBIN: A pleasure.

DONVAN: So you wrote this piece in Salon talking about your point of view on this as the parent, and you actually, we've learned, showed early drafts of what you were writing to your daughter. So what did you want your daughter to know from this article?

RUBIN: Well, what I wanted her to know and what we talk about a lot is that I understand that she worries, and I feel very burdened by the fact that I worry her, that she needs to change - she feels she needs to change her life somewhat. For example, she and her husband have always done adventure travel where they're not easily available by phone or cell, and she doesn't like to go anymore. She doesn't like to be gone that long, and she's concerned. And when she does go away, I get two text messages a day, and she wants me to keep texting her and letting her know I'm OK, and it's a pain. I love her dearly and I...

DONVAN: Wait. It's a pain for her or it's a pain for you?

RUBIN: It's a pain for both of us. This is the problem. We can't talk about one without talking about the other. This is an intergenerational problem. The conflicts are on both sides, and the ambivalence is on both sides. I mean, the most - maybe the most important word you can use to describe what goes on is ambivalence. Let me finish that story for a minute.

DONVAN: Sure. I'm sorry.

RUBIN: When I - when my daughter saw what I wrote in an earlier draft, she called me up and she said, you know, wait a minute. Yeah. It's right. This is my problem that I worry, and not yours, but don't make it so one-sided. The fact is when I go away and I come home and I call you up, you sound as if you've been holding your breath the whole two weeks I've been gone. And I thought about that, and I thought, she's right. She's right. I am more comfortable when I know she's close by, and when I know I can count on her for something, but I hate it. I hate having to be dependent. It's not who I am. It's not who I've been. And I think this is the parental side. We want to be understood. We want you - we want our children to be there for us, but we don't want them telling us how to live our lives.

On the other hand, the kids watch us and they see, for example, that we can't do the things we did before. They will - they don't think we should be driving, and they are probably right. We think we should be driving because to give up the keys to your car...

DONVAN: Which you just did.

RUBIN: Yes, I did. I did it about four months ago when I said - I lived through the experience of having to take the keys from my husband, and I never wanted my daughter to have to do that. So I made up my mind then that I would give up the keys to my car when before anybody took them from me.

DONVAN: You actually could still be driving I think you're saying. You have a little bit more of road in you I think you're saying.

RUBIN: I could still drive. I mean, you know, there are people who are far worse off than I am who are driving now even at 25, especially at 25. But, yes, I could be. But I also know that I was getting - that my reflexes weren't so fast. I had gotten into a small accident. It wasn't even really my fault. But I knew if I had been two years - five years earlier, I would've stopped my car before the accident happened. And that was when I thought, OK. Give it a month. I put my keys away. Give it a month and try it out. And at the end of the month, it was very hard not to take those keys and run down to the pharmacy or whatever. You know, everything that took me 10 minutes or 15 minutes before can now take an hour.

DONVAN: I want to bring in some listeners because they're already lining up to join us in this conversation, and then we'll continue talking a little bit. But you can also respond to them as well. I want to go to Gigi(ph) in Pearland, Texas. Hi, Gigi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

GIGI: Thank you, John. I feel guilty that I have to depend on my three daughters to help me, and they give freely and willingly with, you know, no questions. But I used to be so independent, and now I live five years with one, eight years with another one, four years with another one, you know?

DONVAN: Do they signal to you that they resent this?

GIGI: Oh, no. Not at all.

DONVAN: So why do you feel guilty? I just want to understand that.

GIGI: Because they have their own families, you know, their own children that they need to see for and, you know, take care of. And they don't need another one.

DONVAN: So when you're with them and living with them, do you try to make yourself as small as possible and as unannoying as possible? I mean, is that how you respond to the guilt?

GIGI: Yes. Yes. I stay in my room. I stay in my room as long as I can, and come out and I help in the house. I do a lot of help. And, you know, washing dishes and clothes and folding and putting away and fixing up and letting the dogs out or walking the dogs. I carpool every day three granddaughters to three different schools and pick them up.

DONVAN: I want to see what Lillian thinks - makes of this. Lillian.

RUBIN: Well, what I'm thinking is, in a way, you have a fine situation because you have three kids and they're equal - all eager to help. However, it doesn't help the fact that you have to give up, I have to give up some sense of our autonomy. We give up the sense of independence. We have somebody hovering over us.

DONVAN: Which you went through as a teenager. You don't want to be doing this a second time in your life.

RUBIN: Well, you know, it's a wrenching situation for everybody. Gigi says they do it willingly. Of course, children do it - most children, not all - do it willingly, but it costs them. They have children. They have lives to live. They - many of them work. You know, in the old days when women were home, it was a little easier because there was always a woman in the house to take care of the older person. It doesn't happen now. It's same thing in the old days. You know, a century ago the average life span was 48 years old. Today, it's 80. Today, if you live to 65, you can count on living twenty more years.

DONVAN: Right. Our great grandparents, by and large, didn't have this particular challenge.

RUBIN: So there weren't the same kind of problems where adult children, 50-, 60-, 70-year-old children are taking care of 70-, 80-, 90-year-old parents.

DONVAN: Gigi, thank you. Thank you for your call, Gigi. I just want to bring in Ruth from Marietta, Ohio. Ruth, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. Ruth, hi. You're with us.

RUTH: Yeah, I'm here.

DONVAN: Yeah. You're - you can go ahead and make your comment for us.

RUTH: I am disabled. I haven't been out of the house by myself for eight years. I have to have help. But none of my kids are closer than three hours away, and I have to depend on paid help to come in. I can do a lot of the things for myself, but to get groceries and to take me to the doctor, I pay people. And I - the first lady you had on, the doctor kept saying we. I don't think she talks for all of us. Everyone hates getting old.

DONVAN: Well, Lillian is still with us, so, Lillian, can respond.

RUBIN: I'm the first one in line who hates getting old. I'm 88 years old.

RUTH: I know, and I'm four years younger than you. I'm in - and it's - you only now gave up your car keys. I haven't been able to drive for 10 years. It's a horrible adjustment. It's terrible.

RUBIN: I appreciate what you're saying, but it doesn't really, you know, whatever age it happens at, when you're in this old age stage, it's a terrible feeling to experience yourself as a less than. There were days when I think, who am I now?

RUTH: It's our culture. Our culture treats us as less than, and honeys and sweets us to death. I am sick of being called sweetie and sweetheart and dear.

RUBIN: I absolutely agree with you.

DONVAN: I'm so relieved that I haven't used any of those terms, not that they were in my repertoire. But I...

RUBIN: It is insulting in general. There was a guy - one of the guys I talked to in this book I wrote about this who said, you know, everybody talks to me as if I'm some kind of an idiot, and I will not have it from my own children. And that's what happens. People look at you and they say - they - first of all, you notice, everybody talks louder. You know, they holler as if...

RUTH: And slower and deliberately and...

RUBIN: Well, I think they're worried you won't hear. They're worried you won't understand, so they holler. I don't think people want to be mean.

RUTH: Have you noticed on the television you're referred to as the loved one?

DONVAN: Oh.

RUBIN: Either the loved ones or the elderly or...

DONVAN: You don't - you don't enjoy being put into the cartoon, you're saying, that the culture puts you into, that you're sweet and cute, and you have your hair in a bun. And you would bake cookies if you had a...

RUTH: I think it's a way of dismissing us (unintelligible).

RUBIN: It is.

DONVAN: Were you respectful to your elders when you were younger?

RUBIN: Are you asking me?

DONVAN: I'm actually asking Ruth.

RUTH: Completely, 100 percent. I respected my - my mother was 42 when I was born, and she always seemed much older. And I was very respectful to her and my father. And I expected my kids to be respectful.

DONVAN: Yeah. That's what I'm asking is, did - are - do you feel you're not getting - or the culture doesn't give you what the culture used to give?

RUTH: I don't think my kids are representative of the culture because they respect me.

DONVAN: All right. Ruth, thanks very much for your call.

RUBIN: I actually don't think we can just, you know, I don't have any brief of the culture and the way it deals with age. But let us say this, it's one thing, you know? She said when she was four and her mother was 42, she respected her. It's a very different thing when you are 60 and your mother is 85.

DONVAN: Well, Lillian...

RUBIN: And you have to – there's this wrenching thing, you want the 65-year-old, if there's been any kind of relationship, still wants mommy to be there. But mommy isn't there but yet mommy keeps insisting she is there. And it's a constant conflict. It's a constant shifting of reality. And especially with the cognitive things, you know, cognition in dementia doesn't just come with a drama of a broken hip where clearly somebody needs help and help arrives. But it tiptoes in with little tiny feet, takes a little bit here, a little bit there. And ultimately, you slip over the edge before you even know it.

DONVAN: Can you hang on just one second? I need to say one thing to our listeners. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, Lillian, I want to bring in Josephine(ph) who is in Texas. Josephine, hello. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JOSEPHINE: I'm having static, but I just...

DONVAN: You sound fine on our end. So you...

JOSEPHINE: I just believe you better skip me because...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: No, Josephine, we - Josephine, we really can hear you quite clearly. So if you can hear us, go ahead and just talk and then you can take the answer off the line.

JOSEPHINE: Well, I was on your program, and you still – on the – having written my book, "A Life Is to Live." Do you remember?

DONVAN: No, I'm only a guest host. You're probably talking about Neal Conan.

JOSEPHINE: Well, my real thing when I get frustrated at things I can't do and the help I have to have, I count my medicine.

DONVAN: I heard that today was your birthday.

JOSEPHINE: Today is my birthday.

DONVAN: Happy birthday.

JOSEPHINE: 96th.

DONVAN: Oh, 96. Wow.

JOSEPHINE: And I've had a lot of friend calls, and I've had much - a lot of cards. And I - my son-in-law and helpers sang "Happy Birthday" to me this morning.

DONVAN: And what do you - Josephine, what...

JOSEPHINE: And I'm off to lunch with my daughter and friends pretty soon, so on the whole, I feel very blessed.

DONVAN: And what is it that you want from your kids?

JOSEPHINE: I don't want anything from anybody.

DONVAN: Mm-hmm. You're good. All right. Josephine, thanks very much for joining us.

RUBIN: Happy birthday, Josephine.

DONVAN: Happy birthday.

JOSEPHINE: Thank you.

DONVAN: We have only about a minute left, literally, Lillian. I just want to ask you, in terms of solutions to everything we're talking about, do you see bridges to cross here?

RUBIN: I think I don't have easy solutions. This is a complex issue, and it's intergenerational with very complicated family feelings on both sides. The one thing I would say to everybody and in this bind on both sides of this generational divide is try to listen, try. When your daughter or son says, I want to take you to see this assisted living place because you can't live here anymore, go. Go and look. And now, I can tell you a hundred stories about how the parents, when they do that, they go and they look and they find everything wrong. It's too small. It's too big. They don't like the people.

DONVAN: Lillian, I have to cut you off. But as you mentioned a hundred stories, I want people to know that you've written a book called "60 and Up."

RUBIN: "60 on Up," yes.

DONVAN: And you are a sociologist and a psychologist who specializes in aging. And we mentioned your article, "The Dilemma of Taking Care of Elderly Parents." Well, a link to that article is on our website, npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Lillian joined us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. Lillian, thank you so much.

RUBIN: My pleasure.

DONVAN: Tomorrow, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us. It is Super Wednesday. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington.

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