On caring for old parents, who want to feel helpful

April 3, 2024 | 03:22 pm PT
Tran Thi Phuong Thao Businesswoman
Anyone coming to our house might think we treat our mother poorly.

When I get home from work, my mother-in-law is busy preparing food, ready to cook whatever we want; she only worries that it might not suit our tastes.

She will eat leftover rice and food so that her children and grandchildren could enjoy hot meals and fresh dishes. After meals, she will clean and wash everything. When we go out or travel, she stays home to tend the garden and take care of the cats.

It took a lot of misunderstandings until we reached this "smooth division of labor."

In the past, every meal I would insist: "Mom, eat the hot rice, leave the leftovers. Eat the fresh dishes. Why must you endure hardship, we lack nothing!"

Sometimes, I even snatched the leftover rice from her hands, insisting I eat it. But she would insist back, claiming she liked it that way.

Meals always started with this struggle, often to the point of frustration and loss of joy.

Finally, my husband pointed out: "Just let mom eat whatever she wants. Nowadays, the rice is good, and leftover rice is fine as long as mom feels comfortable."

From then on, I let my mother eat as she pleased.

Living abroad, we invite our mother to stay with us for a few months every year. I really want to take her everywhere, dine out, visit places, but she always declines. Thinking of leaving her at home doesn't feel right, so I try to persuade her. She agrees but doesn't seem to enjoy it.

My husband noticed and said, "Mom doesn't like going out, let her stay home, she seems more comfortable that way."

Unlike my mother-in-law, my own parents enjoy traveling and dining out with their children and grandchildren.

I always thought I needed a good job, income, and a stable home to better welcome and take care of my parents.

I've achieved that dream. My parents live with us now, and my flexible job allows me to spend more time with them, buying whatever they need. Vietnamese food and drinks are readily available here.

My father says he enjoys living here, like in a retirement home. My mother enjoys walks and looking at plants. Sometimes, we take my parents traveling with us.

I thought everything was fine, my dreams were fulfilled. But there were still issues. My parents argued, seemingly unhappy and bored. I've struggled to find ways to care for my parents well, to make their twilight years happy and joyful.

I realize this isn't just my problem. As society progresses, and material conditions improve, many children do everything they think is best for their parents. But something still isn't right, not enough.

I read an article about a visit to a professor's house. After dinner, the elderly mother cleaned up. The visitor was surprised. But after she went to bed, the professor explained he re-washed the dishes because although she couldn't clean them well, not letting her do it would make her feel useless.

Elderly people, like people of any age, need their human needs met to be happy. Beyond safety (food, shelter, finance), they need love, social interaction, and to feel valued and that they contribute something (to avoid feeling useless).

I realized loving parents shouldn't be about assuming what's best for them, but about listening with our hearts.

My extroverted parents need social interactions. Despite our efforts, we can't replace their relationships. My father enjoys veterans' meetings, my mother likes park dancing groups and high-school friend outings.

At this stage, my parents prefer living in Vietnam. Though far from us, we stay in touch online, and they visit us for a few months each year.

My introverted mother-in-law, now alone, needs more love and attention.

I frequently hug her, express my love both when she's near and far through messages. These sincere expressions are not mere formalities. She reciprocates my affection.

For her cooking, we enjoy the meals, thank her, and compliment her cooking. Even if she occasionally overdoes it, we reassure her that "it's still edible", as anyone can make mistakes.

She's sensitive, so insincere compliments will be noticed.

My tears welled up, thinking how a mother would pour over books to nurture her children. Yet, I realized I never sought out literature on understanding the elderly to love my parents properly.

Beyond reading more about the elderly, I began to observe and listen to love them as they wish, not as how we think is best.

Living with and caring for elderly parents doesn't mean "tying each other down" under the same roof and inadvertently "torturing" each other with what one side considers good for the other.

Love without understanding and listening can turn into exhaustion.

*Tran Thi Phuong Thao has a PhD in material at the École Mines-Télécom. She is now doing in mini-supermarket business and real estate.

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