Role Reversal: Protecting My Parents
As told to Rayle Rubenstein
You know that stage that no one wants to think about, when children begin taking care of their parents, instead of the other way around? It’s something I’ve heard about, read about, and kind of kept in the back of my mind as my parents began to visibly age several years ago.
When my days began to include shuttling my parents to and from doctors, I thought, Here it comes. When I realized I needed to check up on them every day, I realized we were getting there. Daily life with them over the course of the past few years, I suppose, has been like baby steps in reverse.
A lot of my friends have aging parents (that’s kind of the norm when you’re my age), and so although it sounds tragic, and I agree that it can be sort of jarring to look at your parents one day and realize they are getting old, to me the slow progression of their reliance on my sister and me was somewhat normal, even expected.
And then came a whole new chapter in role reversal, one that I never could have anticipated, and certainly not one that I think any of my friends have experienced.
It all started one morning when I called my mother and asked to borrow money. It was a small sum – less than $1,000 – but it was an amount that my husband and I just could not manage to scrape together.
“Ma, I feel kind of funny asking you this,” I said, “but we really need the money. Can we just put the charge on your credit card? We’ll pay you back before it’s due so you won’t have any trouble.”
“No,” she said. “I’m sorry.” And then she changed the subject.
Now, my mother has always been frugal, and she is a big believer in working things out on your own. But even for her, this was very strange. She was abrupt – almost rude. Normally she’d have said something like, “Let me check with Abba,” or “I’m really sorry, but … ” And it was obvious that we really needed the money. We hardly ever ask my parents for anything, especially when it comes to money.
I started to worry. Was this new abruptness a sign of senility? Was she resentful because she needed our help to get around now that she was getting older? I’d read about that once. I worried alone, because it wasn’t something I could discuss with my sister. After all, I didn’t want her to find out that we’d approached my parents for a loan; she’d probably have been horrified. And my husband dismissed the incident as one of my mother’s “moods.” He wasn’t upset either; he said we’d find a way to get the money (and we did).
Treading carefully, in case my mother really did feel resentful, I continued to help my parents through a period in which they made many changes to their lifestyle. My parents moved from their comfortable four-bedroom home to a small apartment that required almost no maintenance. They stopped traveling, saying that it was too difficult for them.
My mother began turning down our offers to take her shopping, unless it was to the grocery store or pharmacy. We noticed a big difference in the amounts of food my parents purchased, and we attributed it to their waning appetites.
My parents used to invite us frequently for Shabbos meals, even when their health began to decline. It seemed this was a source of pride to my mother, who is a wonderful cook. She mentioned more than once that hosting us was her greatest pleasure. Once they moved into their apartment, they invited two or three grandchildren at a time, as there wasn’t room for everyone at once. Soon, however, even those invitations stopped. Although I recognized that it was probably too much for my mother, it was painful for me to see her give up those cherished meals.
She had a point, so I let the issue rest.
One morning I called my parents’ home and my father picked up. “Where’s Mommy?” I said.
“Oh, she went to the Jewish library down the block. They’re looking for a part-time librarian,” he said.
“What does that have to do with Mommy?” I was puzzled.
“She wants the job,” he said. “It was an interview. At least maybe one of us can get out. I’m stuck here. I can’t work even if I want to.”
A job? Was he for real? What was my mother thinking, looking for a job at her age? She’d been retired for years.
Maybe she was bored.
Sure enough, when I called again later that day, my mother explained that she was looking for something to occupy her time. “Something besides doctors’ appointments,” she said.
“But Ma,” I said, “how on earth will you manage a job? You haven’t worked in years. Besides, your schedule really is full with all your appointments.”
“This is what I want,” she insisted.
“Good for her!” my sister said, when I called to update her. “Maybe this will help Mommy feel young.”
I wasn’t so sure. Sure enough, the job proved to be too much for my mother. It lasted only three weeks before she resigned.
Then came the phone call, the one that changed everything.
“Your father asked me to be a guarantor for a gemach (free loan society) loan,” my husband said over dinner one night about a month after the librarian fiasco.
I nearly choked on my rice. “What!”
“Yes,” he said, looking straight at me. “Not only that, but when I told him my friend has a gemach, he said he knows but he can’t go there because he already owes him money.”
I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Well, let’s lend them the money,” I said. “How much did he need?”
“He needs $3,000, and he refuses to take a penny from us,” my husband said, “which should not surprise you one bit.”
It surely didn’t. My parents have a stereotypical post-Depression-era mentality. They have always worked hard, spent carefully, and saved every extra dollar. They are proud and stubborn. They are also very secretive with us, subscribing to the belief that what parents do is none of their children’s business. But none of this stopped me from barging into my parents’ apartment that very evening.
My mother was seated at the dining room table, sorting through bills; my father was at synagogue.
“Ma,” I said sharply. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Why?”
“Well, Chaim told me that Abba came to him for a loan,” I said. “We want to help you.”
“We don’t need help,” she said. “We’re fine.”
“Ma, you are clearly not ‘fine’!” I pressed.
“Oh, please,” she said. “It’s nothing. Our car died and we needed to buy another used car, so we borrowed the money. Now we have to pay it back. It’s not a big deal. Abba just panicked, that’s all. We really don’t need any money.”
I didn’t ask why they didn’t mention anything back when they first found out they needed a car. Instead I handed my mother a check.
“Please take this,” I said. “It’s not a loan; it’s a gift. Because we love you.”
My mother looked at me as if I were crazy. “We don’t take from our children!” she said. “We never have and never will. Abba did a very foolish thing. We are fine!”
And with that, she tore up the check and went into her room.
Devastated, I left.
Sure enough, my father called my husband a short while later and apologized profusely for bothering him. He said he made a mistake; they didn’t need the money. “What do you want from an old man?” he joked feebly.
For once I did not rush to the phone to share the whole story with my sister. I knew my parents felt thoroughly humiliated and I did not wish to further contribute to those feelings. My sister is even more outspoken than me; she’d never be’ able to keep from discussing the situation with my parents. And that would crush them completely. She is the baby of the family, their princess. I can imagine how horrified they’d feel if she tried to give them money. I can imagine how horrified she’d feel to know they needed it.
The wheels, however, were turning in my head. Until now, I’d assumed that their move to a smaller abode, and their reluctance to host or give gifts, were due to age. I believed that my mother wanted a job because she was bored. But now I began to realize that I’d been burying my head in the sand. Clearly, they were in financial distress.
My husband made some inquiries and found out that my parents had borrowed money multiple times from his friend’s gemach. It seemed they had started a cycle of borrowing, repaying and borrowing again.
We knew better than to tell my parents what we knew, but we vowed to help them. All of our efforts, though, were thwarted by my parents, who were dead-set against any assistance at all from us. They refused to even acknowledge their situation. They refused to allow us to see any bills so we’d get a better idea of their expenses. We tried to enlist the services of a third party, under the pretext of setting up a “retirement fund” (a ludicrous idea considering they’d been retired for years!).
Finally, out of desperation, I did confide in my sister. As it turned out, she was somewhat aware of the problem, having witnessed my mother’s anxiety over some medical bills. Ironically, she hadn’t said a word to me because she was also afraid to further hurt my parents.
I wish I could say that now that my parents’ secret is out in the open (at least between us sisters and our spouses), we are taking care of them, that they no longer have to borrow money or chase their tails to pay their bills. But that’s far from the case.
My parents won’t give up their fight to pretend that everything is fine. They refuse to discuss the issue or ever take a penny for us. I once dropped off groceries to save them a trip to the store, and my mother made me take it home. The best we can do for now is to leave small bills around the house or in their wallets (nothing too high, to avoid raising suspicion). We prepay for part of their order at the local grocery, hoping they won’t notice. We pick up their dry cleaning and “forget” the receipt. We buy clothing as gifts and sometimes they accept them. Small steps, tiny measures. We don’t even know if it helps, but we simply do not know what else to do.
Recently, when I dashed into the local takeout store to pick up some salads for Shabbos, I was surprised to see my mother at the register, paying for her order. I never knew she bought takeout; it was very unlike her. I was even more surprised to see what she had chosen. There, spread out on the counter, was her Shabbos food: two pieces of gefilte fish, two pieces of chicken, a tiny foil pan of kugel, and a pint of soup with some noodles floating on top.
Shabbos for two for under $30. Cheaper than buying fresh ingredients and cooking them, no doubt.
I greeted my mother and offered to drive her home, but otherwise did not say a word, even as I noticed her chin rise a bit higher as she paid the cashier. I did not buy the salads I’d come in for. How could I? I’d certainly lost my appetite, let alone my inclination to fill my refrigerator to the bursting point.
We drove home in silence, and I thought about role reversal. I remembered how, when I was a child, she had always seemed infallible to me. I remembered the way she used to greet me at the door in her faded apron and chase away my teenage angst. I remembered her sitting at the table with my father years ago, opening bills and calculating carefully, telling me that the most important thing to remember is to always save for the future. I remembered the way that always made me feel safe.
I remembered, and I knew at that moment that she remembered, too. She wanted us both to retain those images forever. And that’s why all I could do for now was drive her home, with her meager Shabbos meal, in silence.