As we age (or as our chronic illness worsens) and every day tasks take longer and becomes more difficult, our desire to remain independent seems to increase. At the same time our children worry about us more and more. And to us, part of their desire to help us seems to involve losing some of that independence we crave so much. And so a tug of war develops. Our children want us to check in more often. They want us to tell them when we go out and where we are going. They want us to drive less and not venture too far from home.
These restrictions seem to help them cope with our aging or worsening illness. To many of us, however, it feels like a leash being pulled tighter and tighter until it chokes us. Further, it is not exclusive to those of us getting on in years or the chronically ill among us. As I talk to former well spouses whose partners have died, many discover that their children’s fear of being orphaned (even though they are relatively young) makes them want to keep constant tabs on their remaining parent. They too find that their children want them to be accountable for their whereabouts more and more.
Sydney was a former well spouse. After her husband’s passing, she slowly began to enjoy her new ability to go out by herself or with friends whenever she wanted, for as long as she wanted to. She began to go out more and more for longer periods of time. Suddenly, she began to realize that just as she was exploring her new freedom, her daughter seemed to want to be aware of her whereabouts more often. It was not unusual for Sydney to come after 11 p.m. and find a concerned message on her answering machine. “It’s late. Where is my mother? You didn’t tell me you were going out. Please call me when you get home no matter what time it is. I am worried about you. You didn’t tell me you were leaving tonight.”
The whole situation came to a head one Sunday when Sydney had gone shopping with a friend. It had been a spur of the moment shopping spree and she had not told her daughter she was going. To make matters worse, Sydney had plugged in her cell phone the night before to charge it, and forgetting it wasn’t in her purse, left home without it. Her friend drove, leaving Sydney’s car parked in its usual place. Sydney’s daughter came by her mom’s apartment to pick something up. She saw the car but missed the cell phone sitting on the kitchen counter. She began to worry. Her mother had started to exercise by walking every morning but never took identification or her cell with her.
Had something happened to her? If so, no one would know whom to contact. She tried calling but the cell phone just rang and rang. After four hours of not hearing from her mother, Sydney’s daughter started calling her mother’s friends to see if anyone knew where she was. When Sydney returned home five hours later to a worried daughter and friends on the lookout for her, she was incensed.
Sydney needs to understand that her daughter is not trying to control her life, but is trying to cope with her own fears of something happening to her only surviving parent. As much as Sydney dislikes how this hovering makes her feel, the opposite would be worse. She would not want her daughter to be completely unconcerned for her welfare and not check up on her occasionally to make sure she was all right. Understanding this will not make Sydney comfortable to be on a short leash, but will be a beginning to a compromise that will help them both.
Sydney’s daughter, for her part, needs to realize how awful it makes her mother feel to be expected to account for her every move. She feels treated like an irresponsible child instead of a mature adult who has finally been able to do what she wants, when she wants. Once they both understand, in their own circumstances, what cause them to react the way they do, they can start to work on a reasonable solution that will work for them both.
Sydney realized that, at her age, it was only reasonable and safe for her to take her cell phone with her, along with identification, when she went walking in the morning. Not only are our neighborhoods not as safe as they once were, but anyone of any age could trip, fall and need help. Doing this might give her daughter enough peace of mind so that she could cope with her other fears for her mother more reasonably.
Sydney and her daughter agreed that if her mom went out in the evening, she would let her daughter know. In return, her daughter would not expect her to account for her daytime moves, providing she made a greater effort to always have her cell phone with her and keep it turned on. This compromise seemed to be something both Sydney and her daughter could both live with, at least for now.
While we need to understand our adult children’s fears and accommodate them to some degree, they too need to understand our need to be treated as parents and not children. A compromise needs to be worked out that will be logical and comfortable to both, though it may not be totally satisfactory to either.
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