When Mom Needs a Mother

By Teryl Warren

Photo Credit: Sally Wittenoom

You’ve seen her. She’s that young lady picking up a myriad of prescriptions at the local pharmacy. Sometimes you’ll find her multitasking – typing furiously on her laptop as she sits in a doctor’s waiting room. And if you look closely, you may find her at her computer pouring over health and wellness web pages throughout the day at work. What you may not realize is that she isn’t doing all of these things for herself. She’s a daughter-turned-caregiver for an aging or ailing parent.

If it’s a son’s duty to protect his family members, then it’s most assuredly a daughter’s to nurse them during their time of need. Sometimes we’re thrust into the role of caregiver suddenly – as in the case of a traumatic accident or medical emergency. Other times, we’re there, step-by-step, witnessing the slow, debilitating effects of an agonizing illness. Either way, we’re never fully prepared for the shock of coming face-to-face with the reality of our parents’ mortality.

Dealing with this sort of changing dynamic in the parent-child relationship can be painful, frustrating, overwhelming and humbling. And usually, many, many questions abound: how do you remain respectful when a feeble parent argues that they don’t need your help? How do you retain their semblance of dignity when you must see to their most intimate personal needs? What do you do with your own feelings of anger and sadness as you watch the hero/heroine of your youth deteriorate before your eyes?

Beyond the emergency room visits and follow-up appointments, seeing to a parent’s health needs includes managing their dietary, transportation, financial and social needs, as well. It’s a full-time job that we must balance with our own careers and personal lives; and it’s impossible to do it successfully without a support system of our own.

When actress/philanthropist Marlo Thomas was suddenly thrust into the role of caring for her mother, she experienced many of these same feelings and challenges. She sought professional help and guidance; and in an effort to help others in similar circumstances, she recently shared some insights from one of the sources of her support – Dale Atkins, PhD. Here is some of Dr. Atkins’ advice:

• “It’s important to remember at every step that there are some things she can do for herself, some things she can do with help, and some things she cannot do at all. Pay attention to what she really needs and give your mom the benefit of the doubt – always err on the side of her dignity and independence.”

• “[If she] need[s] you to go into the examination room with her – go as her extra set of eyes and ears at first, as an advocate, and let your mother stay in control of the conversation. Respect boundaries, and whenever possible discuss modifications to those boundaries with her and hear her out on her expectations and views of the changes.”

• “You must not infantilize your mother but rather respond to where she is at this time in her life. It’s all about assessing needs and understanding what you can and cannot deliver. And while you’re adjusting your life in response to the changes in hers, remember you also need support. Think about where you will get the help you need in order to be there for her.”

If you or someone you know is currently caring for a parent, we’d love to hear your story. Please join the conversation and share your personal experience. You never know what sort of impact you might have. Empathy and advice from others who are going through the same thing may be exactly the type of support that some daughter out there needs.

ABOUT THE EXPERT: Dale V. Atkins, PhD, has more than 25 years of expertise as a relationship specialist helping couples and families. She is a regular contributor to the Today show and runs a private practice in New York City.

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