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'I Love You, Mom. But You're Driving Me Crazy'

Study finds caregiving often sours relationship between parents and adult children


— Carol Maurin

Not so golden years

Instead of living their dream retirement, adult children find themselves responsible for another generation. Resentment over this can put a strain on the relationship — even if adult children never voice those frustrations to their parents. And unlike raising a child, caregiving may offer few rewards. Jacqueline Marcell's father turned downright nasty as he aged, and in his final years he pummeled her with blistering criticism and verbal abuse.

"You're furious that you're being put through this," says Marcell, author of Elder Rage. "You have this roller coaster of emotions. I loved my father, I hated him, I wanted him to live, I wanted him to die, I wanted to kill him, I wanted to save him. And then you have the guilt for thinking, 'Why can't he just have a heart attack and leave?' And then you go, 'Oh my God, how could I think that?' "

These are all normal emotions, Marcell says, and they can't help but seep over into the relationship. And if anyone is going to be able to sense your underlying emotions, it's a parent.

But conflict isn't always bad, Silverstein says. In fact, it can bring people together. While in the study Americans were much more likely to report disharmonious relationships between generations, more than half of the participants reported their relationships as "amicable," meaning they were close, got along and communicated well.

"There could be a use for conflict and human emotions to solve problems," Silverstein says. "Conflict is a way to express different opinions, bring arguments to the fore and possibly allow them to be solved."

When Shari Bruce, 49, of Bethel Park, Pa., asked her mother to move in with her and her family, the tension strained relations throughout the house: between Bruce and her mother, Bruce and her husband, and her husband and her mother.

Bruce's mother, then 83, with dementia, chafed at her loss of independence and couldn't feel comfortable living in a home that wasn't her own. Bruce would hear her mother up at 2 a.m. in the kitchen and lie awake wondering, "Should I go down there? Does she need help? Will she get angry with me if I go?" The stress and exhaustion wore on her. Tensions hit a boiling point nearly a year ago, when her mother broke her hip.

"She said, 'I can't do this anymore. You have to look for somewhere else for me to live. This isn't working,' " says Bruce. While it was hard to let go of her mother's daily care, the decision to move her to a nursing home was for the best.

"Now that all of that is behind us and I know that she's very well taken care of," says Bruce, "we get along so much better now."

What do I do?

To get through these trying times without sacrificing the relationship, Marcell recommends that caregivers forgive themselves for the emotions they are feeling because they are completely normal. Accept the fact that you can't do it all, and get help. Adult day care can be a sanity-saver, she says, for both generations.

"Respite allows you to recharge again," says Marcell. "You've got to have time for yourself."

Cynthia Ramnarace writes about health and families. She lives in Rockaway Beach, N.Y.

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