There were times when my 92-year-old mother could reduce me to a blithering eight-year-old, but I considered myself blessed to share the wealth of simple day-to-day phone calls, weekend visits, holiday get-togethers, vacations, and grandchildren with her every day of her life. I treasured her generosity in times of great adversity—and great prosperity—and for this I will be eternally grateful.
We all have our issues with our parents. Many of us can be reduced to that blithering eight-year-old no matter what age we are now. Some of us are able to break free of the hurt feelings, sensitivity, and resentments that linger. We realize that our loved ones won’t be with us forever and that the clock is running down on their lives. We do our best to let go of any negativity from the past, make the most of the time we have left with them, and appreciate the good they’ve done. And this forms the basis for caring for our aging parents.
China recently put a law on its books that essentially tries to legislate filial feeling—a mandate that says adult children must visit and support their aging parents or face legal ramifications. Could this be an effective way to motivate us to care for our aging mothers and fathers? My experience says absolutely not. Instead, we should be educating adults about the real needs of the elderly, and investing our time and money into a “positive aging movement” whereby we cultivate an educated, compassionate response to getting older.
The challenges of caretaking or supporting aging parents can be daunting. The reality is, in their later years, they’re faced with serious issues that we may or may not be taking into consideration or equipped to handle. Threats to our parents’ health and well-being, mobility, independence, and identity are all very real. Even the strongest and healthiest among them need our love, support, and understanding. They may also require our help when making painfully difficult medical and financial decisions. Doing so requires a whole new level of trust, empathy, involvement, and vigilance on our parts, as well as the emotional and spiritual strength to come to terms with how they’re changing.
After years of raising us (wiping our butts, enduring the “terrible twos,” putting up with our turbulent teen years, and supporting us as we launched our adult lives (college, jobs, marriages, divorces, and so on), the support and caretaking roles are starting to reverse. Our parents are getting older, and now it’s our turn to step up—and take care of, or “raise,” them.
But what exactly does it mean to “raise” aging parents? Just how responsible are we for their mental and physical health and well-being? For their lifestyles, happiness, and financial security? Should we be finding them a place to live, for example, when they can no longer stay in the family home? Should we move them in with us? Become their caretakers? Take over their financial affairs? Give them counsel and even “tough love” when they stubbornly resist changes that are difficult but necessary? Hold their hands as they struggle? Or even help them die?
The answers that are right for you are somewhere between “not enough” and “too much.” Coming up with the right formula for how to raise your aging parents may be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever had to do. Like raising a child (another insane proposition), the challenges of parenting, caretaking, or supporting aging parents can be daunting.
First of all, they’re not stationary targets, or individuals we figure out overnight. If you’re lucky, you parents will be cooperative, accommodating, rational, reasonable, and accepting of change. If not, they may go kicking and screaming, resisting change at every turn. If this is the case, here are my condolences . . . and a few tips:
Pray for superhuman patience, flexibility, empathy, humility, forgiveness, and an inordinate willingness to learn through hard-fought experience. When you feel resentful, helpless, and want to give up, come up for air and take a break, and lean on close friends other family members for support. Think things through with a trusted adviser or confidant, exercise, go into nature, calm your thoughts (with meditation, music, or chamomile tea), eat dark chocolate, and find other constructive ways to vent your anger and frustration. Get a pampering fix (massage, mani/pedi, whatever). Get out and go to the nearest comedy nightclub; or take in an uplifting book, concert, or movie.
Here are some other important considerations when dealing with your aging parents:
- For the Best Results, Act from Love, Not Guilt or Resentment
Check your motives, intentions, and reasons for taking care of your aging parents. Behavior that is inspired by love, caring, empathy, affection, selfless giving, and a compelling sense of moral or ethical responsibility yields significantly better results than that which is driven by shame, blame, self-loathing, fear, and/or resentment. All of us have the potential for true compassion—or obligatory guilt. Cultivating our compassionate sides and clearing ourselves of guilt and shame may not be easy, but it’s our best shot at truly being good sons and daughters.
- Live and Give Within Your Limits, and Have a Life
Some of us are better prepared and positioned to help aging parents than others. Our personal wealth, resources, time, health, and family situations, as well our ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries, are all factors. The key is to live and give within your limits. Financially, mentally, emotionally, or physically overextending yourself while taking care of aging parents can result in burnout, depletion, and abuse (of self and them) when we eventually get pushed too far. Honestly asking yourself, “What can I do?” and “What can I not do?” and lovingly communicating your limits sets the table for understanding, agreement, and practical arrangements between you and your aging parents. Clear expectations prevent unnecessary stress, misunderstanding, disappointment, hurt, and fear of abandonment.
- Beware of “Never Enough” Scenarios
Sadly, some of us have gotten caught up in guilt traps and guilt trips. We try to control other people by inducing guilt in them. This dishonest and destructive habit of selfishly getting aging parents or adult children to do what you want destroys intimacy and trust. And it also breeds corrosive resentment. When you’re left feeling, “No matter how much I do for [my adult children or my aging parents], it’s never enough” breeds helplessness, failure, and rejection. If you’re becoming aware that you feel this way, learn how to catch yourself “guilting”—and then make a conscious effort to communicate your real emotions, needs, and desires in a direct, forthright manner.
- Make a List of What Is Available and What Is Not
Break it down. By itemizing what you’re willing to do, give, and be in concrete terms, and listing what’s not feasible, you’re setting the table for success with your parents. How? First, by being clear at the front end of any relationship, you’re defining the scope of what’s going to happen and hopefully coming to an agreement. This reduces or even eliminates the possibility for misunderstandings, hurt or angry feelings, stress, and disconnection. It also increases the chances of making peace, and gives all of you a chance to discuss how you’re going to fill in the gaps so that everyone’s needs are being met. It may turn out that your parents need a part-time caretaker, someone to give them rides to and from the market, more of a social life (meaning, being less dependent on you and your kids), additional financial support to cover medical expenses, and perhaps the opportunity to see a geriatric psychotherapist for counseling. Making things explicit will not only remove the elephant, martyr, people-pleaser, procrastinator, or victim from “the room,” but it will get everybody on the same page about sensitive yet important matters that need attention.
- Empathize and Show Compassion, but Set Healthy Boundaries
Rescuing, saving, enabling behavior shows no regard for the well-being of the givers. Destined for turbulent, frustrating, enmeshed relationships, they feel unappreciated. Those who learn to give from genuine empathy and compassion, on the other hand, are better able to set reasonable limits and healthy boundaries. Some of us are better at saying no or resisting the seduction of demanding, narcissistic parents (or adult children) when they ask for “more.” It takes great courage, strength, and self-respect to enforce your limits.
- Rest and Replenish: Practice Good Self-Care
Caretaking someone you love who is struggling with the challenges of getting older is a physically, emotionally, and spiritually demanding endeavor. Like anything we aspire to excel at, we need to get in “game shape,” balance energy expenditures with rest and replenishment, and delegate some of the caretaking duties to others even more capable than we are. Spacing the time between visits, taking guilt-free vacations, and asking for help from siblings and other capable, caring adults can all be effective strategies for self-care.
- Set a Gentle but Firm Tone for the Transfer of Power
At some point, you may find yourself gradually or suddenly taking over some responsibilities from your parents. Having consulted and coached families through estate planning and the transfer of generational wealth for more than three decades, and having gone through it with my own family, I know from experience that taking the lead in putting your family’s legal and fiscal affairs in order may very well inspire fear, distrust, jealousy, and greed. Long-held sibling rivalries can resurface and destabilize even the most financially sound estate plans.
- Successful Relationships Are a Two-Way Street
The best insurance for successful relationships at any age is clear, honest communication, respect, and compassion. Communicate how you feel and what you need in a tone that makes others want to listen and learn. Draw them out to see how they feel and what they want—and listen attentively. Let your love and caring lead the way. Take care of yourself, set healthy boundaries, and live and give within your means. There’s no such thing as a perfect parent, child, or relationship. Raising aging parents, above all, means lifting them up with love, affection, forgiveness, patience, gratitude, and understanding. And being at peace with the fact that we did the very best we could.
What Your Aging Parents Want You to Know
- We Still Have Minds of Our Own.
Nobody, young or old, wants to be bossed around and/or dismissed because of their age. Aging parents realize that there are some things they now need our help with—but they want us to know how important it is for us to ask (rather than tell) them what to do, think, or believe.
- Speak to Us with Love and Respect.
Tone is everything. Aging parents realize that our generation is moving at the speed of light to get everything done—but they want us to speak to (rather than at) them, using words and a tone of voice that conveys respect and affection, rather than impatience and frustration.
- We Are Still Your Parents.
Even though they’re older and may be a step slower, our parents are forever our parents. Treating them like (helpless) children can be insensitive and demeaning. We may be taking over greater control for their care and affairs, but we need to occasionally let go, ask for their help/advice, and allow them to enjoy being parents.
- Sometimes, We Still Want to Be in Charge.
Decisions are best made (and implemented) when they’re made in concert with your aging parents. Be a patient communicator when it comes to talking through and deliberating about important decisions.
- You May Be Smarter in Today’s World, but We Still Know More about Some Things.Aging parents want us to tap into the wealth of relevant knowledge they’ve gained from years of experience. Listen, and validate their contributions.
6. We May Not Always Show It, but We Love and Appreciate You.
Some parents, kids, families, and cultures are more demonstrative than others when it comes to showing love and affection. Aging parents want us to look past their occasional grumpiness and know the depth of their love and gratitude for all the ways we’re trying to make their lives better, richer, and more comfortable.
Ken Druck, Ph.D., is a bestselling author, speaker, coach/family business consultant, and community leader whose books include Raising an Aging Parent, Courageous Aging, The Real Rules of Life, Healing Your Life After the Loss of a Loved One, and The Secrets Men Keep.
© 2019 Ken Druck, Ph.D. This article (which has been edited here for sense and clarity) originally appeared on Joan Lunden’s site in November 2013.