Tag Archives: adult children

The Anxiety of Aging Parents

hospital bill

The title of this post can be read two ways. As parents age, they become more anxious, but we adult children become more apprehensive, too. Like a migraine headache, financial security just keeps pounding away. Especially when bills like the one above arrive. Dad came out one morning unable to speak clearly, having experienced what we later learned was a TIA or mini-stroke.

My Dad was unusual for recognizing his increasing limitations as he had plenty of medical reason to expect that a period of incapacitation could precede his death. He had a will, gave one of my brothers financial power of attorney, had a checking account with two of us on it in addition to himself, turned over bill-paying to us, and purchased long term care insurance (though, regrettably, without an inflation rider making those years of premium payments a ridiculously bad investment).

That said, he constantly worried about whether his financial resources were adequate. Anytime an “Explanation of Benefits” arrived from his supplemental Medicare plan insurer, it set off a new round of questions – even if it clearly stated that he did not have to pay the amount. I took to carrying with me a handwritten ledger of his monthly income and monthly obligations.

“See? You’re fine,” I would reassure him.

The flip side of the parent-adult child financial anxiety coin is harder to solve. How do you have “the talk” with a parent who doesn’t think his or her financial situation is an appropriate topic of conversation? At a financial seminar hosted by UBS last week, I learned that the average age of a widow is 55. Older married women – still – don’t necessarily know the details of their financial accounts.

This morning’s New York Times carries a great article, “The Talk You Didn’t Have With Your Parents Could Cost You.” Among other tips, it quotes Amy Goyer, a caregiving expert at AARP, who offered these practical suggestions:

  • Know what type of information you are seeking before you start a conversation, such as: whether a will exists, a financial power of attorney, a medical power of attorney or health care directive; what their health insurance covers, including long term care insurance; whether they have life insurance; and if there is a list of every singe account they owe or collect money from.
  • Start conversations with an “I” statement such as, “I’m concerned about doing the right thing when you pass.”

Although my Dad shied away from the Internet (after a few attempts), the article also reminds adult children to secure passwords for any Internet-only accounts. And the worst place to keep legal documents and instructions, the article suggests, is a safe deposit box, because survivors often lack access to them.

I know it’s “nature’s way,” but certain aspects of aging have always struck me as cruel; high among them, our parents’ feeling of insecurity as they lose ground. Though adult children have a moral obligation to protect aging parents’ security, we can’t lose sight of the need to ease their hearts and minds. That often takes finesse, driven by caring concern.

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Our Common Cause as Adult Children

Dad bird hunting

You won’t find this blog post until you’re ready to think about what we have in common: the sometimes-painful, sometimes-rewarding responsibility for caring for a parent during their “golden years.”

The senior years can be tremendously active and exciting – a period of freedom after a long life of work. But for our parents and most of us – yes, us, too – there comes a period when the world shrinks.

Our job, if we love our parents and choose to be involved, is to make their passage during these years as good as they can be.

Almost every day, I stumble across someone who faces their parents’ elder years with trepidation. It happened again this morning, walking with a neighbor.

These are the truths I hear over and over again:

  • Parents don’t want to be a burden; they actively wish to die in their sleep or go quickly, and don’t want the adult child to feel pain over their departure.
  • Parents often live near their lifetime’s worth of friends, while their children are sometimes states away. Adult children worry how they will provide the assistance needed when one or both parents need more help.
  • One sibling bears most or all of the responsibility for looking after their parents.
  • Often, there’s a sibling or sibling’s spouse who is not on the same page about what should happen.
  • We feel drawn and quartered. We may face pressure at work or be trying to support our young adult children or spouses through rough patches in their lives even while we are trying to pay more attention to our aging parents.
  • Having candid conversations with parents about their intentions, physical limitations and financial preparedness is very, very difficult. Few aging parents are realistic and proactive, leaving adult children to worry about whether (or when) they will have to step in and take over.

I learned some truths of my own along the way, truths that surprised me. I fully expected Dad, who had advanced heart disease for more than 50 years, to go out with a big bang. Instead, he rallied over and over again, never quite recapturing the ground he had lost, but persisting even so. He lived at least 15 years with congestive heart failure.

I also learned that quality of life didn’t depend on the things he thought it did. His perspective changed with time, and he was able to be pretty satisfied even though Mom was gone and he couldn’t hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors as he once did. His world was small, but there were people in it who loved him.

I learned that Dad’s long decline was an important time for him in coming to terms with regrets. He regretted that his father wasn’t more interested in him. He regretted that he couldn’t save my little sister when she became ill with leukemia. He regretted that he couldn’t protect my mother from feeling afraid during her terminal illness with lung cancer. Eventually, those regrets ran their course and were replaced by peace.

I learned that I could give him my love and attention without resentment, even though it meant living my own life in the very slow lane.

I learned that I could have a far deeper relationship with Dad after my Mom’s death than we ever had before.

I learned so much from the last seven years caring for him.

But I understand the fears of those who stand at the precipice of their parents’ old age, wondering and worrying how they will handle it. All I can tell you for sure is that it won’t go quite the way you expect it to. There will be parts that are harder, but there will also be surprising gifts.


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Ghosts in the rocking chair?

The spat that I described in my last post ended with the receipt of a sincere apology from my brother after a three-day marathon of back-and-forth emails. He also asked to “start over” with not just me, but my other brothers.

After time for reflection, I learned a lot, albeit painfully, from the whole kerfuffle. In keeping with the Buddhist proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” I stumbled across some teaching from an unlikely source: a child advocacy and parent-teacher education resource called Teach Through Love. Teach Through Love shared an article link on its Facebook page, and highlighted this quote:

Similarly, our kids push our buttons precisely because they are our children. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘ghosts in the nursery,’ by which they mean that our children stimulate the intense feelings of our own childhoods, and we often respond by unconsciously re-enacting the past that’s etched like forgotten hieroglyphics deep in our psyches. The fears and rage of childhood are powerful and can overwhelm us even as adults. It can be enormously challenging to lay these ghosts to rest.

My brother said that his temper flares when he feels overlooked, ignored, or otherwise “disrespected” and he attributed this sensitivity to some disappointments in his life. When we met for dinner last week, I asked him if he thought it might be related to a longing of his for respect from my father, and perhaps the respect of his siblings for him based on birth order.

He scratched his arm repeatedly as he described his experiences with Dad growing up, beginning with Dad’s return from WWII. Dad later asked him to be “the man of the house” when Dad was sent on a solo tour out to Japan just after my sister’s death from leukemia. And when Dad was disabled due to a massive heart attack in 1962, he was called upon again. He was the same age then that my son is now. Instead of focusing on college, he was trying to help the family pull through the crisis of my Dad’s near-death and the aftermath of my father’s forced retirement from the Marine Corps. (In those days, a heart attack meant automatic and full retirement because, with limited treatment options, military command didn’t believe that a soldier would recover sufficiently to fulfill his duties.)

My mother and father often said that they raised their two eldest children, but they let the two youngest raise themselves. We had the same parents, but grew up in different worlds. My younger brother and I mostly grew up in a civilian world — a world, I might add, that Dad found quite deflating. I admired my Dad, but I didn’t think he was perfect. And I told him off – royally – when I was 21. I was tired of feeling afraid of my father, who retained command presence long after leaving the Marines.

When my brother sent his angry email, he felt disrespected by my younger sibling and me. The email that triggered the original firestorm pushed a flashing red button in his brain. But that button was installed long before.



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