Opinion | Packing our parents in cotton wool

Audrey Glickman
Audrey Glickman (Courtesy of Glickman)

By Audrey Glickman

My friend Joy mentioned the idiom of packing our parents in cotton wool to protect them and keep them alive longer — but I think that could actually prevent them from living at all. Wrapping someone in cotton wool is the perfect description of what so many older children of elderly parents do.

I think that when a person’s abilities become in any way compromised, it’s best if we presume the person can do everything as usual until it is clear they need help. At that point, we should offer what is needed.

When Mom is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we don’t have to immediately build a fortress around her, hire 24-hour guards and conspire to lock her away before she’s ready. Every person’s dementia progresses differently, and everyone’s life circumstances are different. Changing someone’s life situation can accelerate the progression.

In fact, changing life situations can be stressful and detrimental to anyone at any time. After we become adults and before we become elderly, generally we make these decisions ourselves, in communication with our significant others. It’s mostly children, the elderly and perhaps criminals who have changes imposed upon them.

There’s a commercial on television in which a woman says, “We have to talk about Dad.” Throughout the commercial, the siblings say that they must get together and choose a place for Dad to live. Not once do they mention getting Dad into the conversation. They are talking about a nice “retirement” facility with golf and the ability to take one’s dog, apparently the only criteria they think matter to Dad.

There are plenty of stories like this. Many elders are in living situations that were decided by their children. Yes, it is still a good thing to grant your children conditional power of attorney over your affairs and your health care. But make certain that your wishes are completely understood from the very beginning, because once a person is diagnosed with dementia, the decisions are frozen in time.

Of course there are many seniors who live only for their children and grandchildren — who make no life for themselves other than what might benefit their next-generation family members. Again, that should be their decision, not the family members’, unless the elders are imposing themselves on the children and camping in the living room. (In fact, my grandfather lived in our living room for a while when I was a kid. He slept on a cot. Soon enough he moved to the basement game room and continued living with us. He had, however, put in a bid to be one of the first residents in a new senior high-rise. When it was completed, he moved in. I do not know whose decision that was, though the fact that my mother bought him no more solid a bed than our old cot may be an indication of her feelings about the matter.)

Yes, folks whose capabilities are declining may be a danger to themselves. My mother eventually reached the point where she was making herself noodle sandwiches, and often burning the noodles. And she absolutely forbade anyone going into her house to assist her. Then she began wandering. Essentially she’d made her own bed and had to lie in it. She found a happy life in the care facility, though she never forgave me for not returning her to her house after rehab from her broken hip.

All I’m saying to my children who may be reading this is that when your parents reach the stage at which you are questioning our ability to live in our current situation — and this is especially true if you live in another city, state or country — please talk with the people in our lives. Our friends have spent much more time with us than you have in recent years.

We should not pack our parents in cotton wool, only to destroy their ability to live. Over the years I’ve watched helplessly as caregivers (hired by the children) accelerated the demise of their patients by poor treatment, neglect or outright malice. Siblings have fought over this. I’ve seen children make the decision that the parents should move across the country to live “near” them in a nursing home, thus taking the parents away from their community and familiar surroundings. I’ve seen them separate happy couples who had been keeping each other young. I’ve seen them snoop on their parents’ communications — phone, text, email, etc. — and tattle on them to their siblings behind their parents’ backs. I’ve seen them make horrible decisions for their parents based upon nothing, when a simple question or two might have clarified everything — a question posed to the parents’ friends or neighbors, not the doctors.

These decisions generally seem to age the parents faster overall. At least from my perspective.

It’s almost as if the children are saying “die already.” Nothing they’re doing “for” their parents will help them, except maybe to give them a few days or weeks to live, taking away the risks that the parents were willing and eager to take. Taking the life out of living.

Life is life. We should live it until we no longer can. And it should be our choice whether to have the children take over and run things for us, especially in a manner we might not have selected for ourselves.

I hope my children are listening. Wool makes me itch.

Audrey Glickman is the author of “Pockets: The Problem with Society is in Women’s Clothing.” She is a rabbi’s assistant, with prior experience in nonprofits, government, advertising and as a legal secretary.

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