Helping our parents age gracefully takes patience, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness.
When my grandfather had a heart attack a few decades ago, he went without oxygen for six minutes. The paramedics shocked him four times — once more than the usual protocol — until his heart finally restarted. In the weeks after he was discharged from the hospital, he couldn’t remember how to drive to the store, forgot how to square dance, and two weeks of short-term memories had disappeared. Once recovered, he was his usual bombastic (and secretly very gentle and kind) self, but with a few permanent changes. For instance, he stopped ordering his own food at restaurants and had my grandmother order for him. Something about the menus had become too complicated. They were married for over 60 years and she knew exactly what he wanted every time, so it worked out.
As we age, we change. The changes don’t stop once we reach adulthood.
It’s a strange and awkward transition accepting the physical frailty and weakness of old age. An older man who all his life has been used to driving his car whenever and wherever he wanted is now struggling to see well enough to drive after dark. His children are badgering him to stop because they’re fearful for his life, but he has his pride. Or he’s in denial. Or afraid of feeling helpless and becoming a burden. So, each time his children chastise him about it, he becomes more upset. An older woman is starting to struggle with her memory. She knows she’s forgetting something but that’s all she can remember. She remembers that she has forgotten. She’s already frustrated and depressed about it when one of her children says something dismissive about how she always forgets everything.
Helping our parents age gracefully takes patience, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness. One of the scariest experiences in life is the feeling of losing control. It’s important to remember that our older relatives are confronting this fear and the task isn’t easy. They aren’t simply becoming curmudgeons as they age – they’re making a difficult transition and preparing for end of life. They are experiencing a weakening of mental and physical health. I cannot imagine how stressful that must be.
As a man in the prime of life, each day I wake up full of energy. I make a cup of coffee. I drink it with a steady hand and read a book, clearly seeing every letter and word. I remember everything I’ve read. Later in the day, I go out for a run, often for 10 miles or more. I’m in better shape now than when I was a teenager. Broadly speaking, I’m quite healthy with no limitations on my diet or activities. I take no medication. I rarely see a doctor. Sometimes, though, as I sit on the porch and watch the sun rise, I wonder how long it will last. I’m dreading the day when I cannot run anymore, or I cannot see well enough to read. This life that God has given us is a journey, like coming in from a cold winter and warming ourselves by the fire – eventually the fire burns down and everyone must walk back into the snowy night, not quite knowing what’s waiting to greet us out there in the dark. How will I handle it? I can only hope that I’ll do as well as my own grandparents and parents are doing.
The beauty of family is that we are never alone. When I was a child, I needed my parents to care for me. They provided everything — food, clothing, shelter, education. I was weak and they were strong. Some day in the future, they will be weak, but I will be strong. In the family itself, no matter the condition of the individual members, there is always strength. This strength is shared by mutual love. It’s what makes a family so precious.
In a family, caring for aging parents is every bit as important as dedication to raising children. This care will be different in every family. I know many older people who have remained quite independent and lived at home until their dying day. All they wanted from their children was the pleasure of their company. Their children have made a point of visiting them often and including them in family events. My own parents have often taken our grandparents on vacation with them. Other elderly parents have been taken in by their children to live with them full time. Some children have helped their parents move into an assisted living arrangement. There’s no single blueprint.
However we care for our particular parents, the common denominator is that, as people age, even if they begin to need help, they must still be respected. They’re still our parents. They have their own opinions and want to exercise control over their lives. Whatever they need from us, whatever they’re willing to ask or accept, it’s part of our devotion to them to respect their choices. In a way, that’s all they want – to be acknowledged, loved, and respected. Caring for an aging parent is not about insisting on doing everything for them. It’s about providing emotional support, empowering them to maintain control over their own destiny, and expressing gratitude and love.
It’s a difficult transition, one that both children and parents need grace to accomplish. I’ve seen it happen in countless ways in countless families, though, so it is definitely possible. Helping our parents age with dignity is a precious gift we can give to them, and one that, in turn, our children will one day give to us.