Helen Peterson has always known her mother, Barbara Boelter, to be tough – a faith-filled “fighter” who loves to be around others, a devoted wife and mother of five who thrived in her 50-year-marriage, and a hard worker who didn’t shy away from long hours at the shoe store she ran in Oconomowoc with her husband Jerry.
But in 2011, life started to change for Boelter. Jerry died in early January, and Boelter’s sister died later that year.
The shoe store had been closed since 2005, and Boelter, a parishioner at St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish, Oconomowoc, began struggling with health problems, including a minor stroke, major knee surgery, severe arthritis and torn rotator cuffs in both shoulders.
Her son moved back from Texas to live with her, and Peterson, a former EMT, would visit her every day and coordinated all her medical visits.
But in the end, living at home was no longer an option for Boelter.
“We tried some home health care and my mom did not tolerate that at all – she did not want anyone in her home,” said Peterson.
With her children’s encouragement and after some trepidation, Boelter, now 86, moved to Wilkinson Woods assisted senior living community in Oconomowoc this past March.
The transition has been just as difficult for Peterson, 44. She and her mother are close, and she feels frustration and helplessness as she watches her mother struggle to adjust to the new normal.
“I see her more down and scared than I’ve ever seen her in my life, and that’s the hardest transition for me as a child,” she said. “We rely very heavily on faith to help us through.”
Having difficult conversations
The evolving relationship between seniors and their adult child presents a tricky situation for every family, says Adele Lund, director of community and business relations at the Laureate Group, which includes eight senior living communities throughout southeastern Wisconsin, including Wilkinson Woods.
It’s a dilemma Lund said she has seen clients face on a daily basis throughout her 30-year career. Children in Peterson’s situation, she said, can often feel helpless, hopeless and even exasperated as they struggle to gracefully assume their new role as caretaker for their parent. And too often, she said, the child can come across as pushy or disrespectful.
“They have the right intention; they’re doing it with love, but they’re approaching it in a way that doesn’t feel validating or honoring to their loved one,” Lund said.
A facilitator for presentations and programs catering to the adult children of aging seniors, Lund also writes monthly articles about the difficulties faced by seniors and their families. The pieces are published on the Laureate Group’s website and in the bulletins and newsletters of over a dozen religious communities throughout the Milwaukee area, the majority of them Catholic parishes.
One of her latest pieces – “Difficulties Seniors Face When Dealing with Adult Children Who Mean Well” – was inspired by a comment from a parishioner at St. Bernard Parish, Wauwatosa.
“She said, ‘You know, you write a lot about the children’s perspective. What about when a senior is trying to do certain things and they’re struggling with a difficult child, instead of the children dealing with the difficult senior?’” she said.
The idea piqued Lund’s interest, especially when the woman went on to share that she had recently lost her own mother.
“She said, ‘I’m coming to understand, I did a lot of things wrong, and I can’t take it back. I wish I’d have known certain things then – I would have interacted with her differently,’” Lund recalled.
Child’s first instinct is to take charge
The resulting essay encourages mindfulness on both sides of the senior/child relationship, urging seniors to consider the anxiety and good intentions of the child, and reminding the children that they are, in the end, exactly that within the confines of this relationship: the child.
“When they suddenly begin to see those they love falter, when they see health setbacks take a toll, when they see this person who’s always taken care of them needing a little assistance themselves, their first instinct is to take charge,” wrote Lund. “They want to do for their loved one what they’ve always done for them.”
It’s a feeling to which Peterson can relate. While she never felt her mother was being difficult, the “roller coaster” of a situation they found themselves in was often trying, especially with Boelter’s increasing short-term memory issues. And when Boelter initially agreed to live at Wilkinson Woods, but then abruptly changed her mind, threatening the release of her reserved apartment to another resident, Peterson wasn’t sure how to respond.
Lund reminds children it’s not always easy for seniors to share their feelings, fears and desires, and adult children need to be patient with that.
“This generation of older adults, 70-plus – were they taught to share their feelings? They were not. They were to be seen and not heard,” she said.
Boelter, said Peterson, was never one to put her feelings on open display. When dealing with her mom’s anxiety about moving into assisted living, she decided to take a gentle approach, one with which she knew her mother would be able to connect.
“I used to use the word ‘safe’ – ‘You need to wear your lifeline, Mom, you’re not safe.’ We used the term, for her well-being,” she said. But this time, she changed her strategy. “I said, ‘Mom, you’re not getting out. I can’t physically do this schedule with my own health concerns.’”
She also enlisted the help of Boelter’s doctor, who reminded her that she had lost over 50 pounds in the last year and a half, could not raise her arms above her head due to the torn rotator cuffs, and very much needed assistance.
“She said, ‘If you guys think I really need help, then I’ll go,’” said Peterson. “She was scared, but I assured her that being closer to home was a better option – if we waited too long and the room happened to go to somebody else, I might not be able to see her as often … (I said) ‘Mom, now I can be your daughter. Now, we can do fun things together. Before we couldn’t.’”
Seniors face ‘minefield of emotions’
Seniors on the other end of this conversation can also find themselves in a minefield of emotions, said Lund – especially if their children are not as concerned with diplomacy as Peterson. But they must also make the effort to understand the perspective of their child.
“We both have responsibility in this conversation, this relationship, and if we want our loved ones to be concerned about our lives, we need to take responsibility on both sides,” she said. “Take a moment and understand that your children love you profoundly…. If they’re not approaching you in a validating or honoring fashion from your perspective, if you don’t help them understand that’s how you feel, then you have no right to be angry at them.”
Lund also frequently encounters adult children frustrated with their parents’ sense of ennui, meaning weariness, discontentment or apparent lack of interest.
That can be a direct result of the child’s overbearing efforts to “help,” she said, and shared the story of a recent program she facilitated at St. John Neumann Parish, Waukesha.
“One of the audience members, a daughter, raised her hand and said, ‘My mother keeps saying, I’m done, I just want to die. What am I suppose to do with that? We get her out all the time, we spend time with her, we take her shopping,’” she recalled.
“My question to her was, well, first of all, it sounds to me like you have a lovely relationship with your mother. It sounds to me like part of your purpose in life is to care for your mother, and do things for her that she no longer can do. That’s wonderful. But let me ask you this – when your mother was healthier, when she was younger, was she a person who volunteered? Was she a social person? What was your mother’s purpose?”
Return purpose to their lives
The daughter responded that her mother had been an active member of her church and community.
“So I said, well, if you think about your mother for a moment – from her perspective – when she’s not giving the way she used to, and that was her purpose, what is her purpose now? And there’s this long silence. I said, so here’s the thing. I believe inadvertently that we take away purpose from our loved ones sometimes because we see that they are getting more frail, we see that they’re not as healthy as they used to be, and we love them so much that we want to do everything for them.
“And the problem is, when we do everything for them, we take away from them some of the things they could be doing. We do it out of love, and so there’s no bad guy here.”
Lund suggested to the woman that she help her mother rediscover her old sense of purpose – albeit in a new way.
“I asked her, ‘Was she known for her baking?’ What if you said to her, ‘Mom, you know, the last couple years we have really missed your cream tart pie. I know I can’t make it like you can, but if I go and got the ingredients, would you sit at my shoulder and guide me through making it so I can get as close to your recipe as it could possibly be?’ Talk about an instant purpose.”
Peterson has found her mother responds best to a gentle touch, and she has made herself an advocate for her, advising staff at Wilkinson Woods that reinforcing Boelter’s sense of autonomy is liberating for her.
“She’s a little more cautious with things than I’ve ever seen her before,” she said. “I’ve had to warn (everyone) just to let her do it on her own time. Just to go up and say, ‘Hey, Barb, come to bingo, come to bingo’ – she’ll never go. But if they leave her in her room and let her meander down to see about bingo, it’ll go very smooth.”
She also sees Boelter’s purpose returning when she holds her newborn great-grandson in her arms. “My oldest son just had a baby in February, so that’s her first local great-grandchild. She went up to Oconomowoc and held him the day he was born, and the joy in her eyes was incredible,” she said. She tries to bring the baby to see her mother frequently.
Peterson has also decreased her visits to Wilkinson Woods, knowing that her mother will be more independent if she only visits three times a week.
“She’ll explore more when I’m not around, but if she thinks I’m going to come, then she’ll wait for me,” she said. “To let go is hard, but I love that she’s getting involved, so it’s easier to let go when you know she’s having a good time.”
And she made good on the promise she made at the outset of the transition.
“I’ve taken her and we’ve done fun things together, which we hadn’t been able to do because we were going to the doctor all the time,” Peterson said.
When in doubt, advised Lund, seniors and parents should always try to focus on creating mindfulness on both sides of the relationship, urging children to ask their parents not what they think about a certain decision or situation, but how they feel about it. More often than not, she said, silence will ensue – and that’s a good thing.
“When you get silence, it’s a gift. If you get a quick answer, it wasn’t thoughtful, it wasn’t new, and you didn’t make any progress. But if there’s silence, it’s taking them some time to get at their own emotions,” she said. “That’s a gift. The conversation just changed.”