Role Reversal: Becoming My Parent’s Parent

Just listen to some of the themes brought up in the drama from a moment ago. A father who has hired and fired thousands in his time-now growing forgetful, losing his sense of balance, having a hard time maintaining the household. Always planful where business was concerned, but without a plan for his own last years. Mourning the loss of his wife, experiencing diminishment to his sense of self worth. Grieving.

And then his adult children. Painfully aware of the early warning signals of their father’s need for help. Shocked that the great man who had always seemed supremely in control and competent is slipping. Losing their role as dependent children, which brings its own kind of pain and grief. Bringing their concerns to their father, and the concerns are not received well-received with denials that anything is the matter, received with a heavy dose of guilt meant to kill the conversation before it goes any further. Don’t go there. As if the children want to-especially as it dredges up old patterns and unhealed childhood wounds. A daughter banished. A son who could never say no. Resentment makes things harder than they already are.

It’s one story among many. Some, thankfully, are not nearly so painful. Others, unfortunately, are far worse. But the common ground is the role-reversal that takes place between adult children and their parents, as well as this: the need for mutual understanding: the children understanding what parents are going through in their later years, and parents understanding what’s going on with their children. If you are about to enter into this role reversal in your own life, whether you are the parent or the child, my hope is that this sermon will encourage you and support you in your process. And if this role reversal seems years away, still, it’s never too soon to be thinking about this. In both practical and profound aspects. Someone once said that we see the entire spectrum of the human condition within the four walls we call home, and it’s so true.

I’ll begin with this observation: that role-reversal is burdened by layers of complexity. Things are already complex, before any specific role-reversal takes place.

One of these layers of complexity has to do with economic trends in the modern West, which have troubled the status of the elderly in our society. Before the rise of the factory in the nineteenth century, the household used to be the center of economic production, in which the elderly were easily integrated, and were guaranteed the opportunity to make valuable contributions. But then the center of production shifted away from the household, often towards massive, bureaucratic organizations, and there, integration is not so easy. Couple this with compulsory retirement at sixty-five or earlier, and the result is a clear loss of social status, together with a loss of income. The retired must reinvent themselves, on their own terms; and reinvention is no automatic thing.

It’s a question of integration. Being seamlessly integrated in the flow of society. And it’s troubled in yet another way for the elderly. Economic conditions of the past two hundred years have morphed the rooted extended family into the mobile nuclear family. Today we take for it granted that you go where the job is. You leave the town you grew up in. You leave Mom and Dad behind, in order to build a career. To keep doing that, you may have to move again and again. But how do your parents fit into this picture? When families were rooted in one spot, everyone under the same roof, or near by-yeah, it might have been crowded, but relationships and care were daily, easy matters. Now, you drive in or fly in to see Mom and Dad during the holidays. That is, if the schedules of both working spouses agree. This is the picture I’m drawing: 21st century families, mobile, frazzled, overwhelmed. How does regular relationship with and care for parents fit in?

This is the larger economic story that burdens any specific, personal story of role-reversal. Larger economic trends which have troubled the status of the elderly in our society, and which have also made things difficult for adult children to maintain relationships with their parents. Some call the pattern here that emerges “ageism”-a kind of systemic prejudice parallel to sexism and racism. The ageism of modern life. Our “throw away” culture in which we discard whatever is old and worship what is new. Ageism is real, and it is rampant. And while this in itself deserves its own sermon, here I will say only this: that we do not find ageism just in modern times. Negative images of the elderly abound throughout Western history. Physical decline portrayed as detestable, as compared to the beauty and freshness of youth. And accompanying the physical decline? Moral decline. Repulsive moral traits attributed to our seniors: “But, methinks, our souls, in old age, are subject to more troublesome maladies and imperfections than in youth.” The speaker is essayist Michel de Montaigne, writing in the sixteenth century. “Besides a foolish and feeble pride, an impertinent prating, forward and insociable humours, superstition, and a ridiculous desire of riches when we have lost the use of them, I find there more envy, injustice, and malice. Age imprints more wrinkles in the mind than it does on the face; and souls are never, or even rarely seen, that in growing old do not smell sour and musty.” That’s what Michel de Montaigne says. How unfair and hateful. Just a sampling of what’s out there. Symptom of the kind of fear that aging creates in people-and where fear abounds, so does projection. People projecting all sorts of stuff on the elderly, because of fear.

Which leads to one more factor that complicates and burdens the specific role-reversals we find or will find ourselves engaged in. The challenge of making our peace with aging and death. Being chased by our fears-or turning around and facing them head on. It’s the critical psychological and spiritual task of the second half of life. In middle age, coming into the realization that one is truly mortal-going through the harrowing journey of mid-life that can take a person through disillusionment,  a sense of general discontent and failure, efforts to recapture lost youth, loneliness, feelings of burn-out or breakdown, change in vocation and lifestyle, depression. All of this can be going on in the psyche of the adult whose parent is now in old age, the child who is in truth no longer a child.

As for the elderly parent-they are dealing with fear, too, but at a completely different level. For the adult child in mid-life, mortality has become real; but for the parent in old age, the sense of a truly limited lifetime pervades, is experienced directly and powerfully through the loss of old friends, through the loss of a spouse or partner, with declining physical stamina, with declining health, with feelings of inferiority and low self-worth. This is the harrowing journey of old age, and it echoes something that the writer of the Gospel of John in the Christian scriptures said: “I tell you most solemnly, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.” It’s all substance to the spirituality of aging: a surrendering, a giving up, and beyond all possible imagining: a receiving. Drawing on unrecognized, as-yet unknown inner resources and strengths to accept the impossible, to do without the indispensable, to bear the intolerable. Creating meaning not through some of the lifespan, but through the whole of the lifespan. Living into our Unitarian Universalist First Principle, especially as it implies that there is an aspect of inherent worth and dignity to people that can’t be actualized and known until our final years-the best saved for last.

But the way there is hard. Both adult children in mid-life and aging parents feel taken to where they would rather not go. Both feel the belt pulling them forward. And the particular irony in all this is as follows: that adult children could be so helpful by surrounding their aging parents with strength and courage to take the journey that is theirs to take! Yet to face their aging parents is only to be painfully reminded of their own mid-life journey, and so their temptation is to withdraw, to stay away. As for aging parents-how helpful they could be, in modeling for their children how to face aging and death with courage and grace! How helpful, for them to lay out an explicit plan for their long-term care that is both physically and financially workable-parents who don’t expect their children to read their minds, who see what is coming and, out of compassion, refuse to put anyone in the position of having to make uninformed, ungrounded decisions. Ultimate acts of parenting-yet this requires facing up to the facts. Giving up denial. Burning through denial. It makes you so vulnerable. It’s so hard.

When my daughter learned that I was going to be preaching on this topic, she told me that she would come, ready to take notes. I laughed-and then I went, “oh.”

It’s so hard. Layers of complexity to the role-reversal. Layers and layers. The elderly not well integrated into modern life, because of economic developments. Social prejudice. Adult children and parents both engaged in the journey of making peace with aging and death, but in ways that, ironically, can block the other’s progress. All this and more burden any individual instance of role reversal. It’s all there in the background, when adult children begin to see early warning signs of a parent’s decline: like an increased demand for attention, too-frequent fender-benders, or increasing forgetfulness. For my Mom, it was lack of attention to clothes, lack of attention to personal hygiene. This, from a woman who, all her life, had been fanatical about details. The signals can come early and give adult children fair warning, or they can come suddenly, in crisis form, as when a perfectly healthy and independent parent suffers a debilitating stroke. Either way, the role-reversal begins.

And so now we turn to the question of choices. Choices to make, as the role-reversal begins.

One is simply this: the choice to be informed ahead of time, before a crisis forces action. Don’t wait. Don’t put yourself in that position. Here’s a wonderful book to take a look at: How Did I Become My Parent’s Parent, by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff. The subtitle reads: When your aging relative needs your help; how to act, what to say, when to intervene-while keeping your own life intact. The book lives up to this. It covers in detail all the other choices I am about to lift up, and many others.

The next choice: choose to plan ahead. As Harriet Schiff says, “The real problem is the complete lack of preparedness for their new situation which most aging parents have to face. They simply have not thought about the what-ifs. Many of them still feel so young in spirit that preparedness is something for others, not for them. Unfortunately our bodies and our spirit do not remain synchronized as the aging process goes inexorably forward.” That’s what she says. You know, there is this great story about the great Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He and another judge used to take walks every afternoon. On one of these outings, a beautiful young woman crossed the street in front of them, and Justice Holmes, who was then ninety-two, stopped short and gazed after her in frank admiration, said to his friend, “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be seventy again!” The fact is, many of us are or will be as full of spit and vinegar as Justice Holmes was. But this doesn’t take away the need to plan ahead, just in case. Again, ultimately it’s a matter of compassion. Making decisions about the care of one’s parents is fraught with difficulty. An adult child can for years wonder if they did the right thing, if there was something else that could have been done, or done better. And families have been known to split apart, when plans for taking care of Mom or Dad, coming from different children, compete.

Choose to be informed ahead of time, choose to plan ahead, and choose to talk about it. The father in our drama from earlier pretends that he has no earthly idea what his children are talking about, when they try to broach the delicate subject. How much better it would have been if the father helped that conversation along. Few conversations are as difficult. Harriet Schiff puts it this way: “How do you sit down with people who are dressed for golf or planning a trip and say, ‘Now, we’ve got to look down the road. You may not be tomorrow what you are physically today. Who wants to hear this? Who wants to say this?” And yet it must be heard. It must be said.

Conversation is key. Sometimes it’s a matter of children asking their parents what they want, so that interventions avoid being heavy-handed and aren’t more about the emotional needs of the children than the real needs of the parent. Have we even asked Mom what she wants? If she is still capable of maintaining her independence, wouldn’t allowing her that independence be the greatest gift of all? On the other hand, there are times when the conversation needs to take a “tough love” form, where an adult child is feeling overwhelmed by unrealistic demands and a sense of entitlement to unlimited access by the aging parent. Here, a careful negotiation needs to take place. The adult child affirming his or her love for the parent but, at the same time, helping them understand the pressures they face in their own life, all the tasks and responsibilities they are already juggling, and laying down some sustainable ground rules.

So many choices. Choosing to be informed, choosing to plan ahead, choosing to talk about things, and so much more. Adult children choosing to recognize and explore their grief in losing their role as dependent child, which is an incredible grief to endure and comes with a sense of sheer unreality. Adult children also choosing to work through old hurts and resentments. As in the drama from earlier: A daughter banished. A son who could never say no. Resentment making things harder than they already are.

Choices. One choice I would like to see this congregation make is to continue developing its ministries to our elders and also to those of us whose parents are elderly. To this end, I want to issue this invitation: I’d love to see a support group develop for adult children coping with role-reversal. If you are passionate about this issue and can share your expertise in doing this work, please contact either myself or my colleague, Rev. Keller. For things to happen here at UUCA, we depend on lay leaders-and if you are willing to lead in this effort, let us know. Fact is, adult children dealing with role reversal need to connect with other people, need ideas, need a place to talk things out, need reassurance they are doing the right thing. Your service could change lives.

Choices. Each of them sobering. Each of them, in its own small way, echoing the fundamental gesture of the spirituality of aging and death. “I tell you most solemnly, when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.” Each choice, a small surrender, a small giving up of the fantasy that we will live forever. But this is the paradox of life. “As death-bound creatures we long for life; yet spiritual living in its fullness calls for facing, and eventually embracing, personal death” (Eugene Bianchi). No life without death, and no dwelling richly in life unless and until we can find meaning in death. Beyond each choice, each small surrender, each small giving up of the fantasy: a receiving. Receiving inner strengths we could not know we had until after the losses. Somehow, strength and wisdom to accept the impossible, do without the indispensable, bear the intolerable.