I went through it—watching my mom slow down as she got older. The images of a vivacious young brunette standing with her husband and three young kids gradually faded to gray as we grew up. In time, Mom turned 50, 60, 70, and 80. A pillar of strength, she began to walk with a limp, drove a little slower and more erratically, forgot simple things, and spent more time at the doctor’s office.
Being with my mom in her later years was both joyfully pleasant . . . and painfully difficult. She had become the better version of her younger self—as well as a shadow of her younger self. We delighted at the softening of her tightly wound personality, and cringed at the physical hardening and frailty that came with advancing years. From the days after our dad died right up to the time of her passing two years ago, our family did everything in our power to love and appreciate her for the wise and generous matriarch she had become. But I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t tough.
Now it’s my daughter Stefie’s turn. I sometimes catch her looking at me, the older version of her daddy, out of the corner of her eye. The look on her face is one of genuine gratitude, coupled with a tinge of sorrow. She’s grateful for all that I’ve been and done over the years and has made it a priority to get to know me better. But she realizes, more than ever, that I’m not going to be around forever. So do I. Stefie and I are cherishing the walks, late-night phone calls, and bold conversations we have over lunch. Even our occasional disagreements bring us closer together. We listen to each other carefully and avoid petty arguments ninety-five percent of the time.
My daughter and I affectionately text each other “333” (our lucky number) at 3:33 almost every day. We set aside fun time to get together as a foursome with one another’s partners and sweat less of the small stuff that comes up in our relationship. Stefie sees looking considerably older than the guy in that photo with his two beautiful young daughters that was taken 23 years ago.
Watching our parents grow older is an inescapably challenging and heart-wrenching part of life. How could we not feel the sharp pain of anticipatory sorrow when considering the fact that our mom or dad is getting older and will someday die? How could we not search for ways to hide from, deny, avoid, or soften the pain? Avoiding the truth of the situation may provide us with temporary refuge, but the stark reality of life going on without our parents lingers. Since we don’t want these issues to weigh us down, rob us of the joys to come or become the elephant in the room, here are nine options to consider:
- Summon the courage and strength to embrace the cycle of life. We get to live. And we get to die. Losing a parent is part of the cycle of life. Watching the mother and father who gave us life grow old and pass away is inexpressibly sad. Having had them as our parents, getting to experience the richness of our relationship with them is, however, cause for celebration. And gratitude. As we confront their aging and end of days, we also have an opportunity to share some of the dearest and most intimate kinds of love and sharing.
- Become a competent caregiver. Hold, nurture, reassure, protect, and love your parents with dignity and respect when they can no longer take care of themselves. They may have wiped your butts a thousand times as kids, so now it’s time to wipe theirs.
- Vent when necessary. Perhaps build a soundproof scream room in your basement, or just yell into a pillow. Few people can reduce us to helpless nine-year olds, yet our parents possess that power. The human body was not made to hold the kind of hurt, frustration, guilt, and anger that our parents can elicit, so let it out in ways that don’t hurt you or the people you love.
- Honor and celebrate their lives while they’re here. Give the full measure of your love, compassion, forgiveness, and affection to them, expecting nothing in turn. Wear the jewels, kisses, and sacrifices they gave you with pride. Reassure them that they did the best they could, and help them find some measure of peace and enjoyment in each day.
- Get to know them even better. Tune into what’s going on in their world. Don’t project your own feelings, interpretations, or assumptions onto them. Ask open-ended questions, and then listen. Find out what’s weighing most heavily on their hearts, what’s making their hearts sing, and what they’re most excited about. Ask them to tell you stories from their past, and past generations in your family. Consider recording these stories and facts for future generations to understand where they came (in addition to what a genomics test can provide).
- Be there for them when they need you. Wait for them to ask you for advice before giving it. And if they have trouble asking for help, give them a few multiple-choice options to select from. If they stubbornly refuse help, it may be time for some tough love. Speak in a caring yet direct and respectful tone of concern, not panic, and be patient in allowing them time to decide on the best options.
- While it may be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done, help them die with dignity when it’s their time. Make it as safe and painless as possible for them to let go. And muster the strength to release them when it’s clear that their quality of life is gone.
- Continue to love, honor, and embody their spirit after they’ve passed (for more about how to do so, please read “The Five Honoring’s” at www.kendruck.com).
- Allow yourself the time you need to grieve. As independent and self-reliant as you might be, and as much as you’ve become the parent to your parents, you’re probably more dependent on, and attached to, your aging mom and/or dad than you think. Get the love and support you need to bear the sorrow of their passing. Summon the courage, strength, and faith to come to terms with the end of their lives and go on with your own life writing new chapters when you’re able.
Taking these steps allows you to be as good of a son, daughter, or grandchild as humanly possible. It can also help you turn your sadness back into love as you watch your parents grow older and stave off the sorrow. Be grateful for having had these good people as your parents—and honor them by living forward in this confounding, mysterious, and wondrous cycle of life.
For more information about Dr. Druck’s keynote speech, Raising an Aging Parent, work with families and/or Courageous Aging Workshops, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.