5 Things to Know About Aging Parents
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT AGING PARENTS
When parents say they don’t want to be a burden, don’t believe them.
Everyone wants to know they’re loved. Everyone wants to know that someone else has their back. Aging parents are no exception. They may be living in the highest-rated senior facility in the country. More than likely, it’s in another state. (Think Florida.) Sure, they have lots of friends and a dizzying social calendar. But they are far from family and miss out on sharing their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. They may not be keen on or able to travel and are dependent on their family coming to see them.
Our aging parents may have shouldered the responsibility of taking care of their parents or other relatives. They know only too well all that that entails. Still, they would love to have one of their children suggest that they move closer . . . into a senior living facility or even into their home.
Take my mother. When my younger sister mentioned that there was a small house for sale 10 minutes away, she jumped at the chance to relocate from Florida to Ohio. She and my father bought the house. While my mother had said for years that she never wanted to be a “burden” on her children, in her heart she would have done anything to live close by.
2. Many aging parents don’t want to live exclusively with other aging seniors.
On the one hand, living exclusively with folks in the same age group sounds like a great idea. They share similar concerns, interests, and stories. They have lived through important marker events such as war, times of economic bust and boom, their sons’ and daughters’ journeys into adulthood, middle age.
But choosing a homogeneous environment has its drawbacks. Just sit by a swimming pool during the holidays when suddenly the sounds of grandkids laughing, splashing energizes everyone within earshot. There is music in the air. When the holidays come to an end and kids and their parents return home, the quiet can be deafening.
Several aging parents have confided that walking down the hallways of a senior facility, meeting other people along the way, is like seeing a reflection of themselves. It’s a reminder of their mortality. One day, a resident seems healthy and involved. The next, he suffers a stroke or heart attack and ends up in long-term care or, worse, never returns.
“Why would I want to live with a bunch of old fogies?” one aging parent said. “I want to surround myself with all kinds of people in different age groups. It helps me feel younger.”
3. The personalities of aging parents may change drastically.
Be prepared: Your father with the droll sense of humor may turn into a bitter old man who finds no joy in life. Your mother, once a controlling woman who ran the household, may go on permanent strike and never cook again. She may become the “softie,” the parent you turn to with problems of your own.
It’s a challenge to accept the “new” parent whose take on life goes from upbeat and positive to downright morose, or from judgmental and myopic to loving and open. You thought the dynamics in your family were set in stone. For better or worse, you’ve adjusted. Suddenly or progressively, everything is turned upside down. Your parents don’t relate to you as they always have. And you struggle to adjust.
This is when siblings (or other close relatives) can be a big help. You can compare notes. You can talk about how things used to be and come up with strategies as to how to accept and honor the people your aging parents have become.
As Bette Davis famously said, “Getting old is not for sissies.” Watching parents age isn’t for sissies, either.
4. When aging parents initiate discussions about end-of-life, they still feel in control.
In his book, The Other Talk, author Tim Prosch presents a guide to help parents and adult children discuss and make end-of-life decisions.
Prosch notes that 75 percent of families never have this necessary conversation. “There’s got to be a way to help people pass the emotional barriers—it’s something that stops most families from having any kind of communication on the subject. It’s a denial of our own mortality.”
Parents who do have this discussion have a sense of making their own decisions about some tough subjects: Living wills; funeral and burial arrangements; estates. They can take solace in the fact that their children have clear directives and will, hopefully, follow them.
5. Aging parents can die from a broken heart.
When the mother of a friend of mine died, her father moved in. But from the moment he arrived, he made it clear that he wouldn’t be there for long. The couple’s wedding anniversary was approaching, and he had no plans of celebrating alone.
My friend watched as her father grew weaker and weaker. His doctor said that he had no life-threatening illness. Still, his condition was grave.
A day or two before his wedding anniversary, he passed away.
A unique case of dying from a broken heart or one case among many?
According to a study by Harvard researchers published in 2013, surviving spouses have a 66% higher risk of dying within three months after their partner’s deaths.
Researchers are not sure why but postulate reasons may include the remaining partner’s health after caring for her partner, a change in lifestyle, loneliness, or failing to take their medication.
When my father died less than a month after my mother passed away and people constantly assumed he’d died of a broken heart, I didn’t buy it. After all, my dad had fallen, hit his head, and ended up with bleeding on the brain that ultimately killed him.
But now that I’ve seen the research, I’m not so sure. I know my dad wanted to die first and felt he couldn’t survive without my mother. Sadly for him, it didn’t work out that way.
Lesson? Don’t ignore the chances of your surviving mother or father dying of a broken heart. It happens all too frequently. Do all you can to encourage rest, medication (if necessary), maybe even counseling or a push toward staying engaged with other people. Most importantly, be there, optimally in person, with support, love and understanding. Losing one parent is hard enough: Losing both without time to mourn and process is heartbreaking.