Watching Your Parents Age

There comes a time in life when you notice that your parents are aging — particularly if you live at some distance from them — see them only once or twice a year. A few more wrinkles, a little less hair with a little less color, an infinitesimally small decline in the speed of the mind or the body.

As spectator sports go, this one isn’t much fun to watch.

Of course, it touches the heart of the child who, like most children, loves her parents. And, if the parent is wise or observant, he or she can see the concern in the child’s eyes as the offspring anticipates worse to come, up to and including the death of the people who once-upon-a-time meant everything to her, and still mean almost as much. Such a parent might remember back to the experience of witnessing something akin to the “time-lapse photography” of her own parents, with all the same attendant concerns now felt by her offspring.

As the famous Latin phrase reminds us, “sic transit gloria mundi.” So pass away the glories of the earth.

What is one to do?

Well, at the most basic level, there is nothing one can do to stop the aging process, one can only slow it. Perhaps your parents can be encouraged to exercise more, eat better, take their vitamins, and get regular medical check-ups. Or, if you are the parent, you can do this without encouragement, realizing that the longer you remain fit, the more satisfying your life can be and the less concern you will visit upon your kids.

But, at a relationship-level, there are some things that can be done. In fact, quite a few.

The first, is to ask yourself what is the status of the relationship. Are you able to be yourself around your folks? Do they really know you? Do you have to bite your tongue for fear of setting-off a conflict? Do you speak with them about things more personal than the weather, the score of the Cubs game, and other small talk? Do you say “I love you” to them and do they let you know that they love you and are proud of you, in words and deeds? Are they too critical? Do they treat your children (their grandchildren) well?

And if there are problems between you and mom or dad, what then?

The first thing to consider is how long you have carried this concern inside yourself. Is it something minor or something that has caused great pain? Are you contributing to the problem by your own comments, actions, or inactions? Would therapy help to process the sense of injury or anger and the feeling of not measuring up to what your parent(s) expected; the failure to obtain your parents’ whole-hearted approval, dedicated time, and expressions of affection?

Most adults want to think the best of their parents, and attempt to put the past behind them, however unfortunate it might have been. Trust me, there are almost always parents who were worse than yours. But this does not mean that yours were good, or that the issues you carry inside of yourself are finished just because you rarely think about them.

I know, you have thought to yourself, “they did the best they could.” But as Winston Churchill said (and could have applied to any of us): “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

If there are things still unfinished between you and your folks, it is often helpful to make a final effort to put them right (unless you have already done this or your folks are clearly beyond redemption). While aging parents are not regularly open to a reconsideration of what they have done for you or to you, at the very least such an attempt sometimes serves to relieve you of the regret you might feel once they are gone, as you say to yourself “If only I had…”

And, if such an effort fails, this can open the door to needed therapy to grieve the injuries, losses, and unhappiness of that relationship — the things that never got resolved. If, on the other hand, you come to a new understanding or intimacy with your parents, all the better, while you still have time — the time of their lives — to enjoy this reformed and improved connection.

But what should you do if you get along well with your folks, feel loved and have always felt loved by them? How can you deal with their aging?

First, don’t forget about them. If they made time for you, you should make time for them. A good way can be to talk with each of them about their early life, one-on-one. You might discover some interesting information about your family history and even see patterns in your parents’ lives that you are repeating in your own; some good, some not so good.

You may discover that your parent lights up when talking about the past. Their heartbreaks and disappointments in life can also be of no small assistance in forming your own understanding of how your folks came to be the people who they are, and parented you in the way that they did.

And, while they still have life, enjoy them and let them know how much they mean to you. Say the things you would say in giving a eulogy, only do it while they can still hear it. (Good advice in relating to your friends, as well).

Talk with them about what is really important. What have they learned in life that they might want to pass on to you? How do they feel about aging? How do they feel about death and whether there is anything beyond death?

I know this can be touchy stuff. Here is some more: speak to them about writing a will and take a look at it, if they will allow you. Yes, this makes it seem like you are only interested in cashing-in on their worldly goods once they are gone. But, a properly written will that the heirs find acceptable can make the distribution of their estate much easier for all of their kids and avoid court battles and life-long enmity among those relations.

Even more important, ask them how they would like to approach medical emergencies, life support, and extraordinary medical procedures. And, if you can, persuade them to write a “living will” and designate someone to have their “power of attorney” for health care decisions in the event that they should become unable to exercise such judgment on their own.

Here is a story about how this can come in handy, as well as about the difficulty of following your parents’ wishes in just such a situation.

In my mother’s last days, at age 82, she lay unconscious in a hospital bed. She’d lost my dad about seven months before. My two brothers and I knew her to be depressed following his death and in chronic pain from a variety of ailments. She had told me that she prayed every night to her mother and my father that she should die. My folks had assigned the medical power of attorney to my brother Ed, and we all knew by what was written and what was said to each of us, that she did not want anything extraordinary done to keep her alive.

A few days before she died, during one of Eddie’s visits to the hospital, one of her physicians approached my brother and strenuously urged him to authorize an extraordinary procedure. My brother listened as the man attempted to “guilt” him into acting in a way that he knew my mother would have objected to had she been conscious. Eventually the brow-beating ended with Ed still steadfast in upholding my mother’s wishes — but he had been shaken.

Shortly after, I arrived to join stalwart Ed in our vigil at the hospital. Almost before he could say “hello” to me, Ed told me what had happened and, totally unlike him, broke down in my arms. Unless you have “been there” as Ed was, having to say “no” to a medical professional insisting that you should do everything possible, however small the odds, to keep your loved one alive, I don’t think that you can know what such an experience feels like.

This was the woman who had given him life and had comforted him in difficult moments; who protected him, fed him, laughed with him, and cried for him.

But, he did the right thing, the thing my brother Jack and I knew was necessary, and the thing that my mother had unequivocally expressed to be her desire.

Churchill’s words apply here too: “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”

Ed did exactly that, displaying a kind of courage not to be found even in war-time.

So, if you are lucky enough to have an acceptable relationship to parents who are still around, take advantage of the time. And if you are parents who are lucky enough to have healthy and devoted children — same message.

Treat the time as precious — the time and the people.

The image at the top is Rembrandt’s Head of an Old Man in a Cap.

The image at the bottom is my brother Ed, hitting a double in a 16″ softball game at Chicago’s Peterson Park, a number of years ago.

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