My parents have been caring for my elderly grandparents for the past five years; my maternal grandmother moved in with my parents, and my paternal grandparents moved into the same subdivision, you can almost see their house from my parents’ house. During this time my grandparents have been declining physically and mentally, though their decline has really gained momentum during the past year. It’s painful to watch; they were once very active and alert, now they spend most of their time watching television and usually don’t know the day, or even if it’s day or night.
As a result of this decline my parents have had to take on more and more of a parental role with their parents. They have to schedule things for them, make sure they eat, make sure they take their medication, as well as a myriad of other things. My grandfather had to stop driving for medical reasons, and my parents have had to enforce that, which I can tell you hasn’t been pretty.
Meanwhile, my parents have dealt with a kind of role reversal of their own; my dad became disabled, and is now retired. My mom went back to work full time for the first time since she was pregnant with me, so for the first time ever in their marriage my mom works outside the home, and my dad is at home. The joke is that my mom was the stay at home parent for my sister and me, and my dad is the stay at home parent for their parents. I suspect my dad is beginning to think that even with the paint fiascos, floods, and knocked out teeth, my sister and I were easier.
My dad has become the person primarily responsible for getting my grandparents to and from their various appointments, taking them to the grocery store, and taking care of most of their needs. My grandfather hasn’t been especially pleased with this situation; he liked it better when my mom was the person taking him to taking doctor’s appointments and other places. He is very frustrated at not being able to do all that he once was, and has begun to take his frustration out on my dad.
It started off with minor things; complaining about the times of appointments, that my dad didn’t do things the way my mom did, etc, and has gradually escalated into verbal abuse. My dad isn’t the type to complain about the way someone treats him; he’d never allow anyone to treat my mom, my sister, or me that way, but takes it when it’s directed at him.
My grandparents are starting to do things to endanger themselves; they don’t always take their medicine properly, largely because they have no concept of time, they don’t eat unless there’s someone there to sit with them and watch to make sure they do actually eat, and they seem to want to live solely on ice cream and fast food, they usually won’t eat anything else, regardless of what it is or who makes it, and they’re starting to do things like forgetting to turn off the coffeemaker.
The culmination of this dangerous behavior came over the weekend; my parents drove up to have lunch with my husband and me. It had been months since they’d been to our house, which is about an hour and a half away from them, and they decided to take an afternoon to come visit. They checked on my grandparents before they left and made sure they had everything they needed. They also had their cell phones with them, in case anything happened and my grandparents needed to call them.
My grandfather decided he wasn’t happy with the lunch my parents left for them, and that he would walk the half mile to the nearest fast food restaurant to get something else, in the pouring down rain. The walk involved crossing the highway and walking up a steep hill. He fell twice on the way, and once in the restaurant, where they called 911. He refused medical treatment, and ended up getting a ride back home. He didn’t tell my parents about any of this until Tuesday afternoon when he decided he might need to have his arm checked out.
My dad took him to the doctor, and fortunately he’s fine. He said some horrible, horrible things to my dad, though, which made him feel really bad. My dad was very upset about my grandfather potentially getting seriously hurt and waiting so long to tell anyone what had happened.
This incident has made everyone realize that it’s time to consider some other options for my grandparents’ care, as it is simply impossible for my parents to be with them 24 hours a day, and it’s looking more and more like that’s what they need.
In yet another role reversal, I took on the role of comforter to my dad yesterday when I found out about all of this. He partially blames himself, and is having a hard time dealing with the fact that his parents now need more care than he and my mom are able to provide. My dad and I had a really long phone conversation, which consisted largely of me trying to make my dad feel better, and telling him that it’s not his fault. I couldn’t help thinking of all the times when the conversations were reversed, and it was my dad assuring me that I’d done my best or wasn’t to blame in a situation, or even that sometimes life is really hard, but it does get better. It was odd for the roles to be reversed.
I don’t know if the sort of role reversals between children and parents that my parents and grandparents are going through are normal. You’d think it might be a little easier if it were ultimately supposed to happen. On the one hand I watch this happening with my grandparents and wonder if in 20 years we’ll be dealing with the same issues with my parents, but on the other hand I think that will never happen; they’re my parents, they have the answers.