My father-in-law is dying. He had a stroke last Christmas that left him unable to walk or even dress himself. For the last 4 months, he has spent his time in the hospital and rehab. My wife has gone back to see him a few times, in hopes of helping him get better care. It's been pretty much an act of futility. We have both come to realize he really doesn’t want help. We worked hard to find him a nice facility to transfer to. It's an extended care assisted living facility that would care for him in style for the rest of his life. It took us months of hard work to get him accepted there. He told us last week he was moving in with his girlfriend instead. It's an option that horrifies my wife.
His plan is to drink himself out of his situation. Yes, you read that right. He most likely will not survive. Believe it or not, it’s worked for him in the past. Two other times, in the past ten years, he lay close to death. Once from prostate cancer and the second time from liver failure. Each time, he stubbornly resisted all practical medical advice and returned home to his own devices. It's not that we haven’t tried to help him. My wife and I hired lawyers, talked to social security and Medicare, and even hired professional case managers to try and find him the best of care. Yet each time, it ends the same. He somehow survives and returns back to his life of haunting local bars and slowly consuming lethal levels of alcohol. It is, quite clearly, what he wants.
My wife, of course, wants something completely different for her father. She wants him well cared for, fed, and happy. When she has to see him smoking and drinking, it kills her. The man she hoped for as a father is not there. Instead, the dad she is stuck with is a constant reminder of the weakness and frailty of humans. Sometimes, my only role in this mess is to ask her what she thinks her Dad really wants. It’s so easy to project your own concepts of success on other people!
|My wife wants the best for her dad.|
When you’re a parent, the easiest mistake you can make is to project your ideas of life onto your kids. It’s hard to help! You want your children to turn out perfectly. As an experienced and older adult, it is not hard to see the paths to greatness. It's easy to know which friends are going to help your kid succeed and which ones are going to hand them their first joint. It’s black and white!
Or is it? Taking care of your children and aging parents is all the same thing. You are dealing with people who depend on you, who look to you for assistance and guidance. My father-in-law makes a lot of horrible decisions. At times, it's hard not to say, “ Hey asshole! The things you are doing right now are going to make it harder for me to care for you later!” I am sure many parents feel the same thing about their kids. But how successful can you be at making others bend to your will? If I take the alcohol and girlfriend out of his life, will he continue to have the quality of life he wants? Nope! He will have the kind of life I would want. Of course, those are not the same thing.
I had to fire a therapist once that worked for me for two weeks. She had an amazing background. She received a doctorate and had all sorts of advanced degrees and certificates. She really knew her stuff. She would passionately work with her clients, showing them not only what to do to get better, but also where they went wrong. She was really good. The only problem was this: when her clients would return and tell her they forgot to do her exercises she would yell at them. Really yell! When they seemed to not follow her prevention tips, she became hostile. I thought she had anger issues. I watched her unleash her fury on three clients before I realized I could not have her working for me. You know what was wrong with her? She focused on the wrong thing. She was more worried about whether her clients followed her advice than how she related to them. She basically had a one-way relationship with them. She spoke and they had to not only listen, but follow her advice to the letter. That never works anywhere in life.
You know what the correct role is for me as an adult child and as a parent? It’s the same as my role as a therapist. I am here not to make anyone’s decision. Instead, I am only here to explain the correct course. When you come to me with back pain, I can show you exactly what you did to cause your pain. I’ll give you exercises and techniques to avoid that pain in the future. It’s up to you to listen. I know I have done my job if I provide the ideal course for you to follow.
If you don’t follow my advice, I don’t get angry. I am not hurt. I have come to realize that most people will do what they want, no matter how hard I try. Instead, I have learned to be sympathetic. I let them tell me about their failures. I don’t judge them or admonish them. Instead, I just ask them, “How do you think you could have corrected that?” It's kind of an evil trick. I already told them precisely how to avoid the problem and they ignored me. They know that. By pointing it out, I end my role in our relationship as a healer. Now I become an authority figure. If I keep that up I can guarantee the clients will lie to me when I ask how they are. That’s what you do to authority, you evade it. This is really something you never want with a client, or elderly parent, or a child.
Here is the thing, you cannot exert your will on everyone around you. No matter how smart, right, or genius you are, it won’t work! You can not run everyone’s life. If you try, you will ultimately find yourself completely alone - unless you are uber-rich; then you will find yourself surrounded by leeches. But for the rest of us, the greatest mistake is to try and control everyone’s decisions. I know! I was guilty of this too. My family made a profession of controlling others. My grandmother went to the grave believing her money could allow her the right to control everyone. I think her kids grew to hate her for that, so much so that two of them conspired to take all her assets. It never ends well.
So, on the road to finding your aim in life, leave this one stop off the map. You don’t need to waste a moment trying to get those around you to do what you want. It’s a huge waste of effort and energy. Instead, point everyone in the right direction. Use all that energy to learn to accept people. Your job in life is not to make everyone follow your advice. When people go the wrong way, be the sympathetic ear that listens to all the reasons why they went the wrong direction. Get them to tell you what’s right for them. That’s the only way for you to end up surrounded by family and friends at the end of the game. Otherwise, you will ultimately be the only one in the room.