THE BLOG

Girlfriends' Guide To Parenting Your Parents: They Are So Hard To Discipline

08/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I only have one parent left out of two biologicals and two in-laws and I cherish her, honestly, I do. But after this week, I'm dangerously close to taking up smoking (which, by the way, she does with great commitment; I'm convinced it's her scheme to keep herself ineligible for all senior living communities in California) or throwing Momma from the train. She doesn't seem to want to die yet, and I certainly want her to live for many more years, but she just won't work with me on this.

Old age is not for wussies. I am keenly aware of all the little murders aging commits each day. It's not just the Big Three Diseases, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's that lurk around in wait for the aged to take advantage of weakened immune systems and, but the daily assaults like falling, shingles (who knew?) and sadness. I have so much compassion for my shrinking little mommy, at least when I'm not haranguing her, admonishing her, begging her and cajoling her to do things like take her medication, take a shower, floss her teeth or get up and go for a walk with me.

After the illnesses and eventual passing of my in-laws and my father, I'm REALLY accustomed to the big catastrophes; heart attacks, intestinal blockages, massive infections and falls and I'm pretty capable of basic triage, catheters and 911 calls. Actually, I'm the one you want to call to handle a crisis--it fits my temperament to be clear and decisive in the face of disaster. But these huge abruptions cost me dearly in the rest of my life. I can pull two all-nighters in intensive care, but I can't also drive kids to school, write, return emails and make calls. Plus, it ages me! No fair that being a hero leaves me looking like crap.

But old people are so damn stubborn! They are absolutely determined to resist and undermine what seem to me to be sensible maintenance issues that we, their loving children spend at least as much time trying to enforce as we do caring for them. Rules like not secretly canceling doctor's appointments, being polite to caregivers and not burning the house down seem simple enough to abide by. My own mother has refused dental care for several years saying that she hardly has any of her own teeth left and, besides, she brushes every day. Then she gets a toothache, we rush her to the dentist and after half a day of x-rays and a CAT scan, and we learn that she has three abscesses and massive infection. I make the appointment for the surgery and, SURPRISE! She refuses to attend.

One of my girlfriends has two parents nearing ninety who live out of town. When she returned from her last caretaking visit I asked how they were. "How bad can you be and not be dead?" she snapped. It's not only their respective Big Three Diseases that are wearing on her, but the fact that they also fire their caretakers at least once a week when she is not around. Fortunately for her, she realized recently that she could just send the terminated workers back to her parents and introduce them as new employees and her parents wouldn't be the wiser.

The problem with my own mother, I think, is that she sees her demise as one single event. She wants to believe that her mind and lungs and heart and teeth and liver will all work together, in a spite of her refusal to take any special care of any of them, as a unit until the day she leaves this earth. Clearly, that isn't working for her, at least from my point of view. People often have to deal with a series of physical malfunctions for years before the end, but when I try to explain that to her, she listens with the same attention of a typical teenager. "My teeth will last me long enough--I'm not planning to live forever! It's those alarmist dentists; always trying to take your money," she finally explains as I look at her with a combination of horror and frustration. "But, Mom, you've got a head full of infection!" I yell, to which she replies, "It's in my mouth, NOT IN MY HEAD!" Somebody help me, please!

Money is a very big part of the problem, even when it really isn't. All my parents worried constantly about the cost of medical care, even when they had good insurance and Medicare. But as they got older and sicker they all developed profound mistrust of their doctors. They berated them mercilessly when they were frightened, they pouted and refused to cooperate and they seemed to believe it was the doctor who brought the disease, rather than the other way around. It becomes a war with the medical community, and occasionally us kids, as the enemy.

My father once told me that his doctors tried to kill him during his heart bypass operation. My mother-in-law pulled i.v. tubes from her own arm a couple of times and my own mother, who weighs about 95 lbs, had to be restrained by hospital security for refusing to abide by the nonsensical rule against smoking in hospitals. When the hospital cops call you and ask you to remove your parent, you can't be blamed for wishing you were an orphan.

I've learned that people who work in geriatrics call this crazy behavior "self-neglect," and suggest that it is often part of the depression that affects so many seniors.That's just so sad and I hate that our physical decline often sets our own minds against us like this. But my mom is only 21 years older than I am, and I don't know if I can survive her old age only to face my own immediately after.