My parents’ final lesson

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Speaking out - By Rita Rassenti Payne

As my children journey through their adult lives, I have been able to overlook the physical distance between us and instead rejoice in the knowledge that they are all doing well in the distant places where they have settled.

Lately, however, I have been plagued by another variable that is part of the equation but that I had never considered.  How will our long distance children cope with the difficulties they could be faced with when Scott and I reach our senior years?  I ask myself this question as my own far-away parents are now struggling, and I am learning that the sorrow and helplessness that can affect families under these circumstances can be very difficult to bear.

At the age of 19, I was the last of six children to leave the nest. Only one of my siblings remained in Montreal. Although it was a big adjustment for my parents to be alone in their three-storey house, they did indeed make the best of it.

For many years following, they took advantage of having children living all over North America. They enjoyed winters in California and Arizona, and made many visits to Newfoundland. Unfortunately, several years ago, due to failing health, their travelling had to stop.

This meant that the onus was now on their children to do the visiting whenever we could arrange (and afford) to do so.

We were very grateful of course that one of our brothers was living in Montreal. Unfortunately for him though, it meant that he had to bear the brunt of the responsibility of looking after our parents’ increasing needs. As the years have progressed, this burden has become greater, to a point where the stresses are beginning to take a toll on him.

Ironically, through all of our years growing up, Mom repeatedly stressed that she didn’t want us ever having to look after her and Dad in their senior years. “Put us in a home,” she would always say. But now that the time has come when they are actually in need of care, it’s a whole different ballgame.  

My father was an athlete. He was always very healthy. Even now, at 89, his heart is strong and he doesn’t have any ailments — except Parkinson’s. And as his body deteriorates, my mother’s stress level escalates.

My mother also enjoyed a very healthy life. She was pleasant, loved by everyone and had tremendous inner strength and determination. Now at 86, she has hypertension and high cholesterol but continues to function independently. Unfortunately, she has also become very bitter, and resentful. I assume this is a result of the obligation she now feels to take on the burden of caring for my father — the man who had always taken care of her.  

We discussed the option of them moving to a home where they can maintain their independence yet have round-the-clock care available should they need it. This of course would give them and us (their children) peace of mind.  But it was a no go. They have refused to move, and because they are of sound mind, we cannot force them.

So meanwhile, it’s only a matter of time before Dad’s deteriorating body completely gives out on him or until Mom’s heart gives out from the stress of trying to keep him alive. And here we are, their children, living thousands of miles away, unable to offer little more comfort than a daily phone call and a couple of visits a year.

Their state of mind has become very fragile and they miss us and want us nearby. But we cannot simply uproot. There are days when the guilt, helplessness, and worry that I feel are overwhelming, so I am determined to find a way to spare my own children from ever having to go through this.

At one point during my latest visit with my parents, Mom was being very cranky and unreasonable. It was extremely upsetting. So later that day when relaying the incident to my daughter, out of frustration I said, “If I ever behave like that, shoot me,” to which she replied, “Put it in your living will.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think living wills can include instructions on what to do if emotional strain sets in.  What kind of intervention can be implemented when we are of sound mind, and still functional enough to live on our own but choose to put ourselves at risk? How do we manage the frustration of wanting more care from our loved ones than they are able to provide?

I did not bear children so that Scott and I would have someone to look after us in our old age.  We wanted them to go wherever the wind might take them and to thrive wherever they took root.

We don’t want them to ever have to put their lives on hold for us. So perhaps we should put that in writing to remind our future selves because judging by my parents, when the emotional strain of dealing with our aging sets in, we might be singing a different tune.

Rita Rassenti Payne lives in Pasadena and is a member of The Western Star’s Community Editorial Board.

Organizations: Community Editorial Board

Geographic location: California, Montreal, North America Arizona Newfoundland Pasadena Western Star

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