Commentary: To hover or not – that is the question

My dad has cancer. He is 74. The cancer is in his bones, and he has trouble walking. I'm a doctor, the oldest of four children. The role I could be playing in this family crisis is obvious.

But I've learned something from parenting three boys that is helping me navigate through this turbulence differently than I would have expected. I'm not dive-bombing my way into my parents' lives. I'm not micromanaging my father's care. I'm not — with great difficulty, I might add — issuing orders to my dad's doctors, my parents or my siblings.

We've all heard a lot about "helicopter parents," the nervous hand wringers who hover over their children and dive in to "fix" any problems that may arise. As our parents age, and my generation increasingly faces the responsibility of caring for ailing moms and dads, we run a real risk of helicopter parenting our own parents.

Instead of swooping in on my helicopter, I'm trying a new and, I have to admit, somewhat unnatural role: wingman.

A few years ago, I read an article about wingmen that resonated with me as a mother of teenagers. A wingman offers support and physical presence. A wingman helps to ensure safety, but a wingman does not take the lead.

This idea is particularly relevant as an adult daughter. Know how much a 16-year-old fusses if you try to tie his shoelaces? Imagine the reaction you get from a 74-year-old.

My dad is sick, but he's also a practicing attorney. He's been a husband for 50 years, active grandparent and avid sportsman. Neither he nor my mom wants any of us — even "Dr. Bossypants McFirstBorn" — to come in and "fix" things.

That was abundantly clear a few weekends ago when the four of us siblings descended upon my parents' home in Ventura and immediately assumed our childhood roles. While we moved furniture around to make it easier for our dad to safely navigate his house, he cautioned us not to make his home into a "hospital ward."

My mom pushed back whenever we tried to impose our way of doing things on them. I particularly had to bite my tongue when it came to our dad's care. While I think it would convenient if my parents stayed with me in Newport Beach and received their care from my colleagues at Hoag Hospital, they didn't quite see it that way.

One of the difficulties of being a wingman is flying with "limited core visibility." You can't see everything that's going on, because it's not all going on to you. At the same time, there is an expectation that you will remain with the leader no matter what. Even if you can see a perfect opportunity to divert off for a bit and fix something — find a new oncologist, contact a great home health agency — you can't jump out of formation like that. You have to be along side, flying in formation, assisting.

Though they're in unchartered territory, our parents want to be in the driver's seat. That weekend, my siblings and I talked about letting them pilot and trying to just be the jet planes that fly behind.

Being their wingmen makes us kids vulnerable. We give up any chance to direct their care. In exchange, we allow them to maintain their dignity, to still be the parents here.

Time will tell if it's a wise maneuver. But I'm seeing its effect in an unexpected place. Since their grandfather was diagnosed, my sons have treated me more delicately. They've been more understanding than usual about having takeout for dinner or my going AWOL during water polo games.

They can tell I'm fragile, and while they're not quite "parenting" me they're keeping close track to make sure I'm OK.

Quietly, unassumingly, they've become the little planes flying around me now, supporting me while I navigate these terrifying heights and try figure out where to land.

ALLYSON BROOKS, M.D., practices at Hoag Hospital and lives in Newport Beach.

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