When my children were little and growing up, my mother would often comment to me about “uneven development.” What she was observing about my children, at the time, was that in some areas they might look beyond their years, while in others it appeared that they were lagging well behind in skills either academic or social or emotional.
I recently returned from a visit to my soon to be 94 year-old mother and the same thought came to me, this time in the guise of trying to understand her changes. While I fight not to liken a young child’s needs for assistance and nurturing and those of an older adult, I was struck by how my mother’s abilities, skills, stamina, memory, emotions and interests seem so disparate. On the one hand she remains engaged on a number of intellectual levels and can discuss and analyze an interesting book or movie or newspaper clipping she has recently read. Yet, she repeats the same stories of her growing up experiences. I watched as she climbed in and out of the shower to bathe – cautiously, but adeptly. I was astonished when she noticed a speck of dust or a piece of broken glass on the floor and crouched down to pick it up. Yet just walking across the room she needed my hand to help keep her steady. She remains involved, cares deeply and is quite perceptive about her grandchildren and the emotional experience of being in and out of relationships, yet doesn’t always keenly perceive her own emotional needs to discuss end-of-life concerns.
What I argue against in drawing parallels, is that at any time with my children, I could draw limits because I knew that their judgment and experience would not best inform them. My mother however has a lifetime of experience and judgments in her skill set and 94 years of independence. She does understand the risks to her safety. She still has the capacity and she sure has the will to make her own choices.
Older adults who need assistance with a variety of tasks are not young children. We nurture our children to encourage independence and self-esteem, but always mindful to keep them safe. We want no less for the adults in our lives. For both children and adults we wish to ensure their dignity – it is the humanistic way to approach each other. But sometimes I wish to revert to the disciplinarian and set the limits and tell my mother exactly what I think she should do. That would be easy.
The roles have not reversed. I am not now a mother to a frail older adult who has become child-like. We are adult children standing beside our parents as they travel this clumsy road – that is an inconsistent and oftentimes unknowable path. It too is uneven development.