'Doing the Right Thing'

Five years ago, when her mother began slipping into Alzheimer's, Roberta Satow, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, was surprised to find herself plunged into an emotional maelstrom. Her relationship with her mother had always been difficult. Satow, who is also a practicing psychotherapist in New York City, recalls a childhood marred by her mother's cruelty and neglect. Yet as her mother grew increasingly helpless, she felt it was her duty to take charge of her mother's care.

For years, she thrashed among waves of resentment and frustration, struggling to balance her mother's demands with the needs of her husband and two sons--and her career. But gradually, by working with therapists and talking to other caregivers, Satow began to uncover a silver lining. Taking care of her mother, she realized, wasn't going to resolve old issues. "It was, however, an opportunity to gain a better perspective on my mother and on my own childhood," she says.

Her journey--and the experiences of 50 other caregivers she's interviewed--became the basis of her new book, "Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even if They Didn't Take Care of You," published in March by Tarcher, an imprint of the Penguin Group. Unlike other books in the gerontology section of the library that are filled with how-to's, Satow's book supplies a valuable road map for the estimated 20 million adult Americans navigating the treacherous emotional terrain that comes along with taking care of a difficult parent.

"The emotional and physical toll [on them] cannot be underestimated," says Suzanne Mintz, president of the National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA), who points out that caregivers suffer from higher rates of back problems, sleep disorder and depression. Marriages suffer and children are affected, too.

The NFCA offers several tips and resources for caregivers on its Website (www.thefamilycaregiver.org/ed/). But there are other new tools available online as well. CarePages, an Internet-based service (www.carepages.com) created by the health care company TLContact, Inc., helps patients and family members keep in touch during hospital stays, convalescence or long-term care through free Web pages sponsored by participating hospitals and other agencies. And a directory of other online resources can be found at the Web site www.familycaregiving101.com.

In a warm, loving family, taking care of parents can actually be an exercise in reciprocity and promote a new level of intimacy between generations. Even when family dynamics have been fraught with tension, caregiving can become a learning experience. But as the blunt title of her book suggests, Satow doesn't believe in rose-colored glasses. To survive and thrive during what she calls the "caretaking phase of life," adult children must first discard some of the most enduring myths surrounding our graying society and deal with some less-than-comfortable truths head-on. Time doesn't always heal old wounds, she points out. Emotionally limited parents don't become more saintly as they age, either. In fact, they often become more unreasonable and demanding as they get older. And even though it's not easy to admit, Satow says, even the most dedicated caregivers frequently feel a deep ambivalence about their new and often unwanted role. "You feel angry with your parents because of the situation you're in," says Satow. "Then you feel guilty about being angry."

Satow urges caretakers to acknowledge--privately or with a therapist--the powerful feelings that can come along with caring for an aging parent. Then, they must begin a difficult sorting process: figuring out which feelings are tied to the present and which are left over from days gone by. "It's not something you can do on a Tuesday," says Satow. "And you may need a therapist to help you. It takes time."

The benefits? Satow says there are three. First, caregivers can begin to see their parents more objectively. That sets the stages for caregivers to accept their parent's limitations--and ultimately to recognize and accept their own. Seeing your parents realistically affords caregivers another important opportunity: to set boundaries and accept help when the burden gets overwhelming. With a better perspective and more balance, the caregivers can reap a third, even bigger, reward: finding a warmer, more compassionate connection. "It's a chance at healing," she says. "A chance to feel whole again."

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