Caregiving: How to Help When Help’s Not Wanted

How old do you have to be to be considered a “grownup”? For some people, it’s 18 or 21; for others, it’s not a precise age, but the distinction of becoming finally self sufficient, for example, having one’s own place to live and a good job.

Of course, for many of us, in the eyes of our parents, the answer is: never.

Lana Maxwell is 52 and lives in Philadelphia. Her parents, Sam and Ethel, are both in their 80s, and live in New York City. (Names and identities have been changed for reasons of privacy.)

Sam and Ethel are both highly educated retired teachers, and, as far as they’re concerned, perfectly self-sufficient. Lana, on the other hand, has always been the baby of the family—someone who needed a lot of help. Her parents always took care of her when she was in a jam.

Old history, to Lana. But to her parents, the impression persists.

Caregiving for parents who live two hours away is a challenge. Combine this distance dilemma with aging parents who don’t have faith in you, and caregiving can become an exasperating battle.

It was six years ago, during one of her visits to New York, when Lana first observed that her parents were starting to grow feeble. But when she tried to offer to help, they would have none of it. She suggested extending her visit from a planned 10 days to 20. There were things to be done: the apartment was a mess; there were forms to fill out; medications to be purchased, and more.

Her parents told her to go home, but Lana held her ground.

It was only a few days later that Sam, a diabetic, suddenly became quite ill. He’d been chronically exhausted and irritable, but one night when Lana brought him dinner, he fell asleep while she was talking to him. She couldn’t wake him.

Frightened, Lana asked her mother, “What’s wrong? Has this ever happened before?”

“Oh just leave him. He’ll be fine,” Ethel replied.

“Who is his doctor?” Asked Lana. “I think dad is having a serious problem.”

Families aren’t always rational, as we well know. But Ethel, instead of being thankful for Lana’s concern, was infuriated. “I don’t want to hear that my husband is having some kind of episode. I take good care of him. Don’t you ever say that I don’t take good care of my husband,” she said to her daughter.

“She made it clear she didn’t want my help,” says Lana.

Lana dug in her heels. She pulled out her laptop and began searching for information online. It wasn’t long before she stumbled across a video on the website of a major drugstore chain detailing precisely the symptoms her father was having. Lana recalls, “I had just recently got a router working in their house so I was capable of bringing the laptop and putting it in my mother’s lap. I pushed the button and left the room and let her watch it on her own.”

It was clear from the video that her father, a diabetic, was having a severe hypoglycemic reaction due to overmedication: “At the end of the video, the narrator says, if you have these symptoms, call 911,” Lana recalls. “In fact, ‘911’ was flashing it huge red letters on the screen,”

Lana walked back into the room and declared: “We are going to the hospital now!”

That was the turning point. Ethel could no longer ignore her daughter’s pleas. At the hospital, Sam’s medication was adjusted. He spent a few days under observation, and then was discharged to his home. He and Ethel live there to this day.

Just as important, something changed in the way Sam and Ethel view their daughter—as someone they can rely on. While Lana still lives in Philadelphia, she visits more frequently and her visits are eagerly welcomed.

While the playing of the video—or more precisely the adult capability Lana demonstrated by being able to find good information about Sam’s condition online—may have changed the way her parents viewed her, Lana remembers the years of persistence it took to get to point where her parents accepted her as their caregiver:  “This is a long war for us, with campaigns of shutting down, campaigns of assertion to aggression; but it has always been a war of love!” says Lana.

(Steven Slon is editorial director for The Saturday Evening Post. This article was first published by