When Children Parent: Caring for a Parent with Alzheimer’s Disease

Parenting takes on a multitude of forms.  It looks like late nights rocking fussy babies and endless meals cooked, modified, and thrown away.  Parenting looks like feeling crazy love and crazy annoyance all wrapped up in one.  It looks like carpooling and kissing wounds and praying for that baby to make it home by curfew.  Parenting looks like endless nights of no sleep, mediating fights, administering medicine and kisses, and whisper-yelling when what you really want to do is scream your head off. 

The act of parenting is the act of letting go of the thing you love the very most in the world.  It’s an endless battle between pulling close and setting free.  I’m not sure that a parent ever fully gets used to being a parent.  The amount of love you can feel for someone is so shocking.  As is the amount of times you have to repeat yourself on any given day.

And then that child grows up.  Suddenly, your role has changed. They still need you.  Hopefully they still want you.  But they need to make their own decisions and find their own ways and not be coddled anymore.  They are these grown people who no longer need all of our medicine and kisses, though they may still come around for it.  They will find someone to love, or not.  They will have their own babies, or not.  You will always be their parent, but they won’t always be a child. 

And one day, there may come a time when your memory begins to fail.  There may be a day when you can’t remember how to get to your local grocery store or what the name of your best friend in high school was.  You may be confused by the loss of all the things you’ve always known.  Suddenly, those babies of yours, the ones you rocked and kissed and yelled at and prayed for, they will come back to you.  And they will wonder if you’re okay. And you will say with all your might, OF COURSE I’M OKAYThis is not your job, child. You don’t need to protect me.  But they won’t listen to that nonsense.  They will ask you questions and give each other curious looks and you will think, what happened here?

And then there will be talk of assisted living homes and in-home caregivers and dementia and Alzheimer’s and you will resist all of it.  You are scared.  Things are getting fuzzy, but you can’t watch your babies taking care of you like this.  It doesn’t feel like this is the way it’s supposed to be.  But as you watch them make decisions, cook meals, and talk to nurses, you think, I did okay.  They are good kids.  I may be forgetting things, but I will never forget these faces. The kids are alright.

Those kids move you into a new assisted living home; they bring your favorite things and decorate your room.  They make sure you will get your favorite meals and that your nurses are well-versed in Alzheimer’s disease care.  It’s getting harder and harder to remember now, but when you do, you remember sitting in that old rocking chair by the fire and rocking babies for hours.  You remember their first proms and their first kisses and their first big jobs.  You remember when they forgot to call home for a while and then when they finally did and how their voices brought the sunshine back.  

Parenting looks like many things.  But in the end, what it always looks like is letting go.  Letting go of the tight hold on them, setting them free to be their own little people, and letting go of expectations of what it will always be like.