Caring for dead parents is easy — it’s the living ones that are difficult

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Let me say right up front that I love our county libraries. I even have a mini Yolo County Library card on my key chain because I regularly visit our Winters branch. However, with all due respect and affection, the county library, with a little help from the Friends of the Davis Public Library, really stepped in it last week.

I realized the bottoms of their shoes where mucky when I received a press release about the latest program offered at the Davis branch on a series about caring for aging parents. When I saw the title, I was really interested because several of my friends are struggling with this life stage, when the child-parent relationship flips on its axis; when your parent clearly isn’t able to live independently anymore, but he or she is still lucid and stubborn enough to refuse outside help.

I have several friends, and even my own husband, who are really struggling with aging parent issues — everything from worsening dementia to Alzheimer’s disease, to grief after losing a spouse. All are exhibiting signs that they need help taking care of themselves or their homes or their finances, or all three, but are resisting help.

It may be obvious to you that Mom needs to get hooked up with Meals on Wheels so you know she’s getting at least one balanced meal per day, or that Dad can’t seem to get upstairs anymore and may have to move to a single-level home, or that your parents aren’t handling their finances very well, and the time to make plans for their next living arrangement is apparent. But not to Mom or Dad.

When confronted with the fact that they’ve forgotten to pay a bill, or taken their medications incorrectly, or that the fact that they drove over the mailbox may mean it’s time to hand over their driver’s license, it’s not like this news is met with enthusiasm or appreciation. You may discover that Mom’s anger and indignation are still quite intact, thank you very much. However, that anger is a cover for fear.

Losing control of yourself and your life is terrifying. And watching your parent lose control of him/herself is terrifying too.

The transition when child becomes parent and parent becomes child is uncomfortable for all concerned. We’re reluctant to assume the reversed parental role, telling our parents what to do, deciding where they’ll live. The decision-making process is tough. But the gray area before that time is even tougher. You discover that like your own babies, your parents didn’t come with an owner’s manual. There aren’t any guidelines. You realize Dad is failing, but when to step in and take control — that is the question. When your parents start declining, the order of life becomes scrambled, and the reality of your parents’ mortality starts to sink in. As does your own.

I sympathize with those muddling through the parent-child upending. I can only sympathize, because neither of my parents lived long enough to make it to this stage. My mother died in her mid-50s, and my father was completely disabled from a brain aneurysm in his 50s. When he awoke from the coma, there wasn’t any question, or struggle, about the level of his dependency. It was obvious.

So, when I saw that library press release, I was hoping to pass it along to others, but the title of the very first workshop stopped me cold: “What to Expect at the Funeral Home.”


How to Care for an Aging Parent: Start Shoveling.

This workshop was followed by “Stages of Caregiving”; “Hospice 101”; and “Wills, Advanced Health Directives and Power of Attorney.” Three out of four workshops were about death and dying. Not aging. There is a difference, folks.

I was so disturbed by this that I emailed the person who sent the press release and told her so. She agreed, but said it was a matter of scheduling speakers. I replied that the series wasn’t about caring for an aging parent, it was about caring for a dead or dying parent. No matter how you shuffle the speakers, it’s still all about death and what leads up to it.

I was hoping for topics like, “How to find respite care”; “Should Mom or Dad move in with you?”; or “How to Cope with the Stress of Parenting Your Parent.” These are topics about parental aging and coping with it. Maybe the Davis Friends and the Yolo County Library can organize a series with these topics, and next time around, flip the workshops so the death and dying come at the end. As well they should, and pretty much always do.

That said, you don’t need to attend the library’s funeral workshop. Sadly, I’m an expert on that topic. Here’s all you need to know: When the time comes, call Wiscombe’s Funeral Home (which, ironically, is facilitating that first workshop).
Wiscombe’s handled my father’s funeral back when they were called “Smith’s.” Oxymoronic as this seems, they made a very painful experience as painless as possible. All those horror stories you hear about funeral homes, like being pressured to buy extravagant coffins and lavish extras — none of that happened. It was professional and low-key, and thoroughly organized. It was the best horrible experience I’ve ever had.

Best of all, I didn’t have to walk through a coffin showroom, where you have to point and say, “That one.” I can’t even effectively describe the soul-sucking grief that accompanies that decision. Wiscombe’s had their wares on video, which was entirely more bearable. And they never pressured me with grief-induced guilt, not once.

So, that’s all you really need to know about funerals. Call Wiscombe’s. Turns out, caring for a dead parent is pretty simple. It’s caring for a living one that’s difficult.

— Email Debra at; read more of her work at www.winters, and

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