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Does Role Reversal Mean Losing Our Independence?

Personal Perspective: Maintaining agency when we need our grown kids' help.

Key points

  • Role reversal may be inevitable, but it doesn't have to change your relationship with your grown children.
  • Few people have children so someone will take care of them when they're old, and even fewer are good at asking for help when they need it.
  • Young adults feel independent even when they're not; older adults should emulate them.

Having made it this far in life with most of my original equipment, minus a few teeth and an appendix, I am facing an upcoming hip replacement with some trepidation. I've always been more of a cerebral rather than an athletic person; unless it's in or underwater, I'm not very interested in exercise, neither for pleasure, challenge, or in pursuit of those endorphins that are said to be the ultimate high.

I always figured I would rust out rather than wear out, but I'm definitely tired of hurting every time I sit, stand, get in and out of a car, or walk more than a couple of blocks. They call it elective surgery, which is why they postponed it to from November to March, but at this point, it doesn't feel elective at all, just necessary to my quality of life, a standard that's not as high as it was when I was younger, but still includes being able to get in and out of bed by myself. (Hint: If turning over on your Tempurpedic feels like climbing out of quicksand, a coil-and-spring mattress will ease some of your aches and pains.)

Despite the assurances of my friends who are partly bionic already that hips are the easiest joints to replace with the quickest rehab, I'm still nervous. General anesthesia has its own risks, as well as all those other things that could go wrong and sometimes do. What I'm most worried about is being dependent, especially on my grown kids. Of being a burden, an obligation.

Although I know better, I never thought the role reversal that is characteristic of the relationship between aging parents and their adult children would come to typify my own. I have thus far stubbornly resisted their imprecations that I stop driving and their eager anticipation of the time when my 26-year-old car finally dies; my driving record, I remind them, is better than theirs, although I have stopped driving at night. I have given up on trying to make them stop checking the sell-by dates on the contents of my fridge and throwing out anything that looks suspicious.

There are things I ask them to do for me occasionally, like picking me up at the airport, helping me move, or take care of my dog when I'm away, but those don't compromise my feeling of independence. Not the way giving up driving would, let alone being physically unable to prepare my meals, bathe and toilet myself, and get in and out of bed alone. When my daughter said she'd come up from Oregon a couple of days after the surgery, suggesting that her brother, who lives closer, could do those things until she arrived, I snapped at her: "I don't want him to take me to the toilet and wipe me when I can't bend or twist enough to do it myself; that's what daughters do!"

Imagining herself in the same position, she apologized, and changed her plans. The only other time I couldn't do those things for myself, I'd just had an emergency colostomy, but I was hospitalized long enough for the nurses to teach me how to be a bag lady for the thankfully brief few months until my original plumbing was restored. Thirteen years ago, I wanted my kids more for their company than their help during my convalescence, and I also had more friends I could call on for assistance, but now many of them are away for the winter or in worse shape than I am.

I'm beginning to realize that role reversal is as inevitable as death, and I won't escape that, either. But it doesn't have to mean feeling dependent. I've often written about the fact that today's young adults feel independent, even when by any objective standard they aren't, especially financially. As in so much of life these days, feelings rather than facts replace reality. If they can feel independent even when they need our help, why can't we when we need theirs? It's a case of mind over matter, I keep telling myself, even when the matter can't move as nimbly as it used to.

I didn't have kids so they'd take care of me when I got old; nobody does, because we don't think then that we ever will. But I'm glad I had them; I just don't want them to infantilize me. A sense of agency doesn't have to be the cost of role reversal, of what parents pay for asking their adult children for help. As long as I can say, I'm still your mother, I'll be in charge of my own life, despite how long ago I stopped taking charge of theirs.

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