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Parental Rights

Adult children should not usurp Mom and Dad’s wishes

Well-meaning children sometimes uproot a single parent in an effort to give the parent “a better life.”

Story and photo
by Sharon Niederman

About two years ago, a close friend’s mother passed away. While she’d been ill, well-meaning people urged my friend to move her mother from a small town hospital to Albuquerque, where she could receive more sophisticated medical care.

But my friend’s mother wanted to stay near home and friends. She wanted her bridge partners and her minister to visit her in the hospital. And she insisted on treatment from medical people she knew. So my friend followed her mother’s wishes, and the as it turned out, terminally-ill woman, continued to receive treatment in the small town where she’d lived all her life.

When well-meaning outsiders or critical family members objected to my friend’s decision, she said, “Last time I checked, Mom was over 21. She’s got full possession of her faculties, and as long as she tells me what she wants, I intend to honor her wishes.”

The opposition my friend faced came mainly from far-away siblings who did not choose to or were unable to assume the responsibility for their mother’s care as my friend had.

I recently faced a similar tug-of-war with my own mother. She moved to Albuquerque about a year after my father passed away. She was 82 at the time, and she’d lived all her life in central New Jersey. We found her a lovely little house in the Southeast part of town, and she settled in there.

By day we lunched, and I showed her around town; by night we shopped for curtains and visited the casinos.

I was trying, for my part, to fashion the kind of warm parent-child relationship we had never enjoyed. I committed to concentrating on the present and putting aside decades’ old resentments. I dreamed of at last achieving an adult relationship with my mother.

At loose ends

But things didn’t work out quite as planned. The desert heat adversely affected her ankles, which tended to swell. She lost confidence in her driving after she jumped a curb and ran into a gas station — with no memory of what had happened.

My mother refused to pursue friendships at the senior centers or any of the many enjoyable activites available to seniors in Albuquerque. She turned down invitations from my friends’ mothers. After a single visit to my book club or a community center, where she insisted I accompany her, she refused to participate in social gatherings.

Instead, she preferred to sit alone in her kitchen, curtains drawn, doors locked, listening to talk radio. She felt frightened by the wide roads, the big skies made her uncomfortable, and she felt menaced by the violence she intently listened to nightly on the news. Not a picture, book, magazine, or photograph graced her walls and tables. She virtually re-created her house in New Jersey.

Her unhappiness was unmistakable, and the more I tried to alleviate it with invitations and suggestions, the more stubborn she became about rejecting my ideas.

Before long, she subscribed to New Jersey papers to study the Sunday real estate sections. I was in a dilemma. Of course I wanted her to be happy, or at least comfortable, but her moving back would trigger anxiety for her well-being. At least, if she remained here, I could check in on her regularly, continue to go to lunch, keep up with her health situation as time went on. If something went wrong, I could consult with her doctors.

Making choices

I imagined frightening scenarios, terrifying long-distance phone calls, frantic commutes to the east coast.

But how could I insist she stay put? She is a grown woman, in command of her faculties and resources, fully entitled to spend her “golden years” any way she chooses. I could try to influence her, but instead, I chose to support her move. This wasn’t about my comfort level or convenience. Nor was it about what I thought was “best” for my mother. I had tried, and failed, to “make her happy.” Ultimately, what kind of relationship would we have if I tried to keep her here against her will?

After two years in New Mexico, my mother returned to her familiar, comfortable New Jersey, moving back into the retirement community where she used to live.

The phrase “honoring someone’s wishes,” usually comes after the individual has passed on. But is that the most appropriate time?

And how would I want to be treated? Would I want someone telling me what to do in my most senior years?

While it may be appropriate for a parent to suggest, or even enforce, what seems like the best path for a child, an adult child’s assuming responsibility for a parent’s choices is not. So long as that parent is physically and mentally capable of caring for him or herself, the parent’s decisions ought to prevail, as that parent pursues his or her own vision of happiness. A parent is not a child.

This article originally appeared as a “First Person” column in
Mature Life Magazine of the Albuquerque Journal
in October, 2005.

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