The Geography of Memory

A pilgrimage through Alzheimer's

Caught in the Middle: Your Parents vs. Your Kids

Are they rivals for your attention?

As my mother edged into confusion, my husband and I began calling her every day. I flew as often as I could to Dallas to haul her to doctors, clean her clothes, and take her to concerts.

I’d leave home for five days. Every single time, I felt torn. I postponed writing projects and entrusted my classes to graduate students, but what really weighed on me was forsaking my children. Molly needed me to visit colleges with her. Jack needed me to ferry him to origami and chess and to chatter with him as we made dinner.

I’d stock the freezer for their dinners and sometimes write out menus. Just before I left, I’d set out a stack of food tins for Petunia, our cat, and then walk out the door, wishing our little family well.

How the conflict shifted

But at some point our kids began to help us care for mother. Not that we could have required that of them. When I came home talking about her, they asked about her. They started to phone her and send her cards and letters. Then they wanted to visit her. Well, to tell the truth, I probably nudged them. But they went cheerfully, and they were glad they went, so they visited her again. And again. We paid their way, of course, and slowly taking care of mother became a multi-generational project.

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I stopped feeling so torn.

Looking back, I wonder: Why were our kids willing to pitch in?

Cut to ten years earlier: Mother and Molly

My seven-year-old daughter Molly is giddily hopping from foot to foot. We are waiting together in the Philadelphia airport for her to board a plane. I am filling out the form which will permit a flight attendant to deliver Molly to my mother in Dallas. I am recently divorced, alone with this child.

While Molly is with mother, they will visit the zoo, slurp ice cream cones, paint at the art museum, swing at the park, tell one another stories. And my mother, suddenly permissive—as she was not with me--will let Molly watch as many videos as she wants. Molly will be the sun around which all her planets revolve.

Cut to five years earlier: Mother and Jack

My mother, now in her mid-eighties, steps out of the car we have just parked at Kinhaven music camp. Jack and his friends, all of them tanned, barefoot, dressed in white for the performance, sweep toward us across the grass. My mother’s face radiates pride. She flew from Dallas to Philadelphia, caught her breath for a day, then drove with us 300 miles with us to attend Jack’s concert. All of us together stride across the meadow to the hall.

No wonder the kids in our family wanted to help care for their grandmother.

The generations work together

Looking back, I realize now that the next generation was crucial to everything that happened during my mother’s illness and after her death. Take, for example, when she was next on the list to move into Bentley, an assisted living facility in Dallas.

Molly and I flew from Philadelphia to help move mother from her two bedroom bungalow to Assisted Living. My sister’s daughter, Eve, arrived with her husband’s truck. When the three of us stepped into mother’s two-bedroom apartment at dusk, we discovered that the guys who moved her furniture had dumped out all her drawers onto the floor. The rooms were filled with a mish-mash of confused rubble. If I had been alone, I’d have sat down and wept. But Molly and Eve perched on the edge of the rubble and began sorting. They laughed. They told stories. We all sorted and organized. Until two am during the next three days and nights, we worked together.

The role of grandchildren in caring for an aging parent

The next generation didn’t take over the day-to-day care of their grandmother, but they offered what they could. One weekend Jack flew to play a violin concert in mother’s assisted living facility. She, who noticed less and less, nevertheless convinced the Powers-That-Be to post notices in every elevator about his concert. Every single resident came and mother basked in Jack’s reflected glory.

Many of my students in the university, who are now younger than my children, also help care for their grandparents. I could tell you their names. I could tell you their stories. Perhaps more than any generation I have ever taught, our current 20-year-olds are engaged with the older generation.

Why engage the kids to help care for their grandparents?

• Because middle-aged caretakers need help.

• Because many grandmothers and grandfathers are thrilled by attention from the kids.

• Because caring for a loved one together creates ties between generations. These ties make it more likely that the whole family will stay connected into the future.

• Because the younger generation has a right to witness aging and death. And the older generation has a right to be connected to their grandchildren.

If our kids watch us care for our parents, they might learn how to do it. Then if we ever need care, perhaps they will care for us.

Jeanne Murray Walker is the author of THE GEOGRAPHY OF MEMORY: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s, which tells the story of caring for her mother during her last decade. 


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Jeanne Murray Walker, Ph.D., is a professor of English at the University of Delaware.


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