Book helps adult children handle a tough role reversal

One man's experience smooths the road for others caring for their parents.

Published February 27, 2007

There are no classes for becoming the parent to ones' parents. It's a role into which many of us are thrust by necessity.

This happened to Jim Comer when his father had a massive stroke, and taking care of him and his mother, who had Alzheimer's, fell on the son's shoulders. Overnight, Comer, who worked in public relations for a Los Angeles corporation, had to make all the decisions his parents had previously made for themselves: where to get medical care, where and how to live, what things to keep or discard, how to manage finances, etc.

Fortunately for us, Comer has written about his on-the-job training in When Roles Reverse, A Guide to Parenting Your Parents.

As befits his writing background - he has written op-ed pieces for the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times and been a joke writer for Bob Hope and Joan Rivers - Comer brings both seriousness and humor to this task. Above all, however, he offers a road map for this unfamiliar and daunting trip, even while emphasizing that each person's case will be different.

Part one of this book chronicles his family's journey, from the initial phone call Comer received from his parents' next-door neighbor to the funeral of his father, a decade later, and all the stops in between.

Comer writes with compassion, honesty and humor. He does not sugarcoat the frustrations and difficulties of what he says became his most rewarding role. In the final chapter of part one, "I Got More Than I Gave," he writes:

"In the last decade, my view of life has changed immeasurably. I understand that dignity comes in a variety of shapes, including bent, wrinkled and walker-assisted. I realize that parenting is not a part-time job but a full-time commitment. Mine is not a cameo appearance. I'm here for the long run."

Each of the 22 chapters of the first half of this book concludes with "Comer's commandments," a summary of the chapter's focus. They are worth the price of the book alone.

For instance, chapter two, "Starting Over at Fifty-One," notes, "Parenting is a relentless calling. There is no time off, sick leave, retirement package, or vacation pay. My new career had no discernible job description . . . And everyone expected me to know what to do."

Commandments that conclude this chapter include:

- "When you start to feel sorry for yourself, put things in perspective. You are not in North Korea."

- "Never forget that doctors are human, hospitals make mistakes, and nurses' aides are underpaid. If something seems wrong, question it."

Other commandments from succeeding chapters include:

- "Do not expect to change your parents. Altering the habits of a lifetime is a daunting task. It's like talking abstinence to 18-year-olds."

- "Do not ignore the elephant in the living room. Steer the conversation away from 'safe' subjects and talk about what's really happening."

- "If you want to make the streets safe, start at home. It takes real courage to tell an 87-year-old parent to stop driving."

- "If a parent has dementia, don't expect her to stay in your world. Get a passport to hers."

- "Remember that real heroes are those who do dull daily duties with humility and a smile."

- "Go to any lengths . . . to give your parents the feeling that they are in control."

- "No matter how prepared you think you are, the death of a parent will bring up feelings you don't expect."

Dividing the two parts of this book are 50 questions that, as Comer says, will save you time, money and tears. "Families who talk to each other openly - who ask hard questions and face difficult answers - will be prepared when a crisis comes. And, eventually, it will come."

His list of questions seemingly covers every facet of your life and theirs - emotional, mental, medical, financial - and gives you a way to get your parents' feelings on their future when they will be unable to care for themselves.

The list also provides a useful way to record much of the information you will eventually need. The second part of When Roles Reverse offers practical advice for navigating what, for most of us, will be unfamiliar territory.

To offer a wider perspective that includes things Comer had not dealt with - squabbling siblings, arguments over money or mementos, changing diapers, responsibility for meals and medications - Comer interviewed full-time caregivers, home health care agencies, geriatric case managers, and administrators of retirement homes, assisted-living residences, and nursing homes, as well as critics of this extended-care industry.

If you are looking for one guide to this reversed parenting role most of us will have to face, this is it.

Nancy Paradis can be reached at 727 893-8342 or nparadis@sptimes.com.



Caregiver road map

When Roles Reverse: A Guide to Parenting Your Parents by Jim Comer, Hampton Roads Publishing Co., $17.95