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Roberta Satow on Caring for Elderly Parents

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

For some adults, it's hard enough taking care of themselves, let alone caring for their parents. But sooner or later, many of us come face to face with that challenge. NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with one woman who believes you can balance both worlds.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

As millions upon millions of baby boomers head into retirement, you would think it would be a time of freedom. But for many baby boomers and for many Americans throughout this country, there are so many obligations that come up caring for children and sometimes caring for elderly parents. Roberta Satow wrote a book called "Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents, Even if They Didn't Take Care of You." She speaks from personal experience, and we welcome her right now.

Thank you.

Ms. ROBERTA SATOW (Author, "Doing the Right Thing"): It's nice to be here.

CHIDEYA: So tell me a little bit about what your relationship with your mother was like when you were younger, and when did you begin to play a caretaker role for her?

Ms. SATOW: OK. My relationship with my mother was quite strained. When I was a child, she was very--I'm the youngest of three. I have an older sister, an older brother. And my mother was always very angry, very critical, very angry. My relationship with her was distant.

CHIDEYA: Yet later in her life and later in your life, you were forced to take a really strong role in her care. Tell me about what it felt like the first time you realized you would have to not just be polite to your mother but to really be involved in her everyday life?

Ms. SATOW: It was difficult. I had a lot of ambivalent feelings. And what I realized in doing it, although I had spent many years in therapy and working on my relationship with my mother, nevertheless I found that a lot of old feelings resurfaced in the interaction with her and having to take care of her. And I had a lot of ambivalence about it. On the one hand, I wanted to do the right thing, I wanted her to be taken care of, I was very upset at her decline. And on the other hand, it felt like a great impingement on my life and I would--all my old feelings of anger would re-emerge. And precisely because of that, I decided to write this book, because I felt that if I'm having so much struggle trying to do the right thing and take care of my mother, I bet that there are probably many other people who haven't really thought about their relationship with their mother or father, who are feeling very guilty and very angry.

CHIDEYA: Now you are not only somebody who has dealt with your own feelings in therapy; you, in fact, are a psychoanalyst...

Ms. SATOW: Right.

CHIDEYA: ...and so you're familiar with seeing other people's or hearing other people's lives unfold in front of you. What did you find were common patterns among people as they had to take care of their aging parents?

Ms. SATOW: Well, I found that many of them had a lot of difficulty setting limits. I mean, the perspective that I take in the book is that caregiving is a period of life in which we can really resolve many unresolved feelings from earlier times. It's a chance for constructive growth. So I found that the real distinguishing feature between those who were able to use caregiving in a constructive way and those who were not was the ability to set limits.

CHIDEYA: There are so many multigenerational families in America right now, so many people who have one of their grandparents living with them or a parent and a child. What do the dynamics get like when you really have all of these different people that you have to please in your household?

Ms. SATOW: It becomes incredibly difficult and there are very high rates of depression among caregivers of all kinds of psychosomatic symptoms. I did spend a lot of time in the book talking about the effect of caregiving on your relationship with your children, on your relationship with your spouse or significant other, on sibling relationships, because issues with siblings come to the fore with great power during the caregiving period.

CHIDEYA: People saying, `My sister isn't doing enough, my brother isn't doing enough.' Give us some concrete examples, not just in terms of siblings but in general, of what you can do if you're one of these people who's squeezed in between different demands, including taking care of your parents.

Ms. SATOW: People have to remember that taking care of themselves and setting limits is something that's good for everybody. It's not just good for you; it's good for the person you're taking care of and it's good for the rest of your family. And many people feel guilty even for the balancing. In other words, if they take time out to be with a spouse or they take time out for their children, some of the people I interviewed felt guilty that they weren't with the parent.

CHIDEYA: There are so many people who take primary responsibility for their parents. You mentioned that even with all of the social programs, people generally are still cared for primarily by their families. What obligations or what incentives should the government provide or listen to in terms of giving people more support?

Ms. SATOW: No, I think it's a terrible problem in this society, that people are left with it on their own. I think that we need things like tax deductions for taking care of elderly parents. I think that children who are caring for their elderly parents should get some sort of stipend for doing so, because after all, they're saving the government a lot of money by taking care of those elderly parents. And it's particularly an issue for minority people because minority people tend to be more likely to want to keep people at home even when they're incontinent, even when they have dementia, whereas other groups at that point would say, `Well, this is it, we're going to send them to a nursing home.' So I think for families who want to do the right thing and want to take care of their elderly parents, this society has to set up incentives to allow them to do that without self-destructing.

CHIDEYA: Roberta Satow is the author of "Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents, Even if They Didn't Take Care of You." Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SATOW: Thank you.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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