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.