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Ten Ways Caring for a Parent Is Like Raising a Toddler

If you have kids, being a caregiver to an elderly parent may feel a bit familiar.

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Don't let the face fool you. Caring for elderly parents is no wheelchair ride in the park.
Illustration by Tim Bower

Let me begin by saying that I feel your pain. Just as you start to accustom yourself to the benefits of being an empty nester—planning that long-awaited vacation, picking up a hobby like figure drawing, dirt-bike racing, or binge watching the Sopranos—you get the phone call. Mom has fallen. Or Dad is disoriented. Or maybe the labs didn’t come back the way everyone had hoped. Disaster can strike gradually or abruptly, and unless you are an expert in denial or have a sibling who has a passion for playing Florence Nightingale, you realize that you have been transferred into another stage of life: welcome to the Caregiver Years.

My own journey began late last fall, when it became clear that my father, a widower in his mid-eighties, was no longer capable of managing his life alone, and that I would have to step in. As anyone who knows my father will tell you, he is a wonderful man, and so taking care of him is an act of gratitude and love, to be sure. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been challenging; it wasn’t long before I found myself canceling lunches to take Dad to the internist, or stepping out of meetings to take emergency phone calls, or, more recently, designing sitter schedules so complex that they resemble CIA anti-terrorist flow charts. I had the eerily familiar feeling that somewhere a giant stopwatch was running and I was losing the race.

And then during one particular emergency room visit over a holiday, the punchline to the cyclical joke that is our modern lives came to me: taking care of an ailing octogenarian is, in many ways, not so different from raising a toddler. The ultimate goal and the attendant emotions may be different, but the day-to-day sanity-saving routines are virtually identical. For instance:

Food

Think back to those early days. Toddlers get cranky for three reasons: they haven’t eaten, they haven’t slept, or just because they are toddlers. But the first reason is the most common. Small children do not recognize hunger as such, and so instead of asking for food they just fall apart. The elderly, with their declining appetites, also do not recognize when they are hungry until it is too late, with a similar outcome. Now is the time to restock the purse or backpack with crackers or, depending on your food politics, dried fruit and kale chips. Resurrecting the portable Cheerios container, however, is probably not a good idea.

Nap Time

See above. Remember how a perfectly charming child could suddenly become a ringer for Charlie Sheen on a bender if you tried to push through the afternoon without any rest? The same is now true for Mom or Dad. If your parent is getting cranky and you don’t know why—he has eaten, used the rest room, and checked his email—then it’s time to settle into a quiet spot, maybe with some soft music or calming reading matter. (You didn’t put your own kids to bed with a Grimm’s fairy tale, so why do it to your parents?)

Television

My guess is that you can still recall the words to and melody of the Barney song (or some more-current, equally cloying counterpart) because you once heard it about a trillion times in a day. While most parents at least suspect that constant TV watching can crimp the intellect and imagination of children, the same is most likely true for the elderly: a steady diet of Fox News, MSNBC, or even CNN can distort their perceptions of reality, to the point where they cannot judge the difference in importance between Casey Anthony and Bashar al-Assad.

Noncompliance

“No” is a word that quickly became the H-bomb in the toddler’s arsenal. Roughly translated, “You can’t make me” in toddlerese meant “I am discovering and asserting my independence!” For the elderly, it means something different—I am holding on to the little independence I have left, damn it! They might suddenly decide that lifesaving blood pressure medicine, for instance, is for other people. Or that a stroll on an icy sidewalk is just the thing for a crisp winter morning, and who needs that silly old walker anyway? Or why bother with a hearing aid when everyone can JUST TALK LOUDER? For both the young and the old, the prescription is the same: a discussion of consequences. When that fails—and it will—the most useful advice is the one that worked best with small children: pick your fights.

Sitters

No one—not your boss, not your spouse, not even your own children—is more important to keeping the wheels of your life turning smoothly.  Time and a half on holidays? Of course! Hire an immigration attorney to bring her sister to the U.S. from West Africa? No problem! Put her child through Harvard? Done! Stockholm syndrome is a small price to pay for a Friday night date.

Equipment

Once, you maintained upper body strength by wielding portable cribs, car seats, and strollers. Now it’s canes and wheelchairs, and—Gates Foundation venture capitalists take note—no one has yet applied their engineering expertise to inventing a collapsible, lightweight, multipurpose, architecturally pleasing wheelchair for the discerning children of elderly parents, most of whom now have lower back issues from carting their kids around.

Germs

As most parents know, children are ideal incubators for and carriers of disease, particularly those nasty bugs of the respiratory and digestive tracts. Most parents also know that these conditions often clear up on their own, usually after a twenty-hour wait in the ER or the cancellation of nonrefundable vacation airfare. Disease prevention back in the day involved frequent hand washing—along with strategically placed bottles of Purell—and the elimination of playdate candidates with perpetually runny noses. Treatment of aging parents, especially those in hospitals or “retirement communities,” is identical, though a bit dicier. Instead of childhood asthma, you have to watch out for superbugs like MRSA, an infection resistant to many of the antibiotics that have been overprescribed for the past few decades.

Competition and Meddling

Remember the one-upmanship that started with Apgar scores and continued through college admissions? Don’t look for an ending here. If you are caring for an infirm parent, smugly delivered phrases like “My mom is 97 and still driving!” or “My dad is 87 and has an age-appropriate girlfriend!” will have about the same effect as “Alexander is having a hell of a time deciding between Stanford and Yale” did a few years back. Similarly, a parental medical crisis will bring unsolicited advice out of the woodwork. The world is full of people who know exactly what you should do for/about Mom or Dad, and their passion and pushiness will be directly proportional to their complete and total ignorance of the actual details of the situation. Remember all those crazy debates about nursing? Get ready for debates about nursing homes.

Women’s Work

When Janie or Nicole got sick at school, who got the call? The same is true this time around. The daughter—if more than one, the one in closest proximity—winds up in charge. Why? Because she’s raised a toddler, silly, and at least has the appearance of knowing what to do.

Perfection

Yes, helicopter parenting will recur—as helicopter parenting of your parents. The desire to dry every tear, solve every problem, and demand to speak to a supervisor will be profound, admirable, and—think of those heart-to-hearts with the Little League coach—often counterproductive. Old age, like childhood, is finite, so it’s a good idea not to waste the time you’ve got left imitating Alexander Haig’s “I Am in Control” press conference. Wasn’t the sweetest time of child rearing often those nights when you sat by your kid’s bedside, doing nothing but going over the day or reading a beloved story? Mom or Dad would like that very much too. Meanwhile, it’s important to set a good example for your own kids. They will be in charge of you soon enough.

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