“Nothing’s certain but death and taxes,” they say. I have to ask, “What’s so certain about death and taxes?” The only certitude that we really have is that stuff will happen: some of it enjoyable, some of it painful, some of it avoidable, most of it not. There’s an aspect of midlife that becomes painfully obvious once you’ve entered into it: people you know . . . and people you love . . . begin to fall ill and die. The stuff that happens in life in life remains incredibly unpredictable, and yet, just as a matter of statistics, the longer you live, the more painful experiences you’ll have around those you know and/or love.
If you’re on good terms with your parents, and if you’re blessed with having them with you as you go through the midlife transition, you’ll begin to experience that well-known role-reversal as they become less able to care for themselves adequately and you become more capable of becoming a care-giver. Even if your parents retain their strength, acuity, and vitality as they age, eventually their decreasing independence and your increasing capacity for responsibility will necessarily intersect. Under those circumstances – which are the very best you can hope for – you will be called upon to become a care-giver. At very least, your sense of vigilance toward them will be heightened: like your children, you know that they need their independence, yet you feel responsible for keeping them safe at the same time.
I’ll be eternally grateful for the experience I had with my own parents. My dad lived to be 87, my mom lived until she was 84. They died eight months apart. They were incredibly active, sharp and independent right up until the end, each of them was sick for only about six weeks, and, during that time, they experienced a minimum of discomfort. They both passed away with their family around them. If I were to have designed ideal circumstances for the closing chapter of people’s lives, I couldn’t have imagined a more ideal situation. And yet, even under such circumstances, still today I can’t explain to anyone else, who hasn’t experienced the loss of both parents, the overwhelming impact that it had on me. Try as you might, nothing can really prepare you for it. There comes a moment (at least it did for me) where you suddenly realize what it feels like to be an orphan. Regardless of how old you are, there’s nothing quite like that sense of being left alone entirely on your own for the first time.
I’m well aware how easy my family and I had it with our parents. Few people have to deal with so few complications as we did. On one hand, there are all the problems that seem to drop at random into people’s lives: accidents, serious illness, genetic predispositions to chronic conditions (like Alzheimer’s disease). As the safety net little by little dissolves under the corrosive influence of adverse economic pressures, the tremendous burdens involved with providing the kind of care our parents deserve revert back to where it used to lie: on the immediate (and extended) family. Only today, the extraordinary fiscal and social pressures on that family in most cases make it practically impossible for people to provide the kind of quality personal care and attention that their parents deserve. We no longer have an agrarian society where the family together looks out for one another; and we no longer have a social situation where having a stay-at-home caretaker is the rule.
On the other hand, while your parents need and deserve their independence, those who will someday (soon?) become their caretakers are in no position to dictate their choices for them. Even when you know that you’ll eventually bear the brunt of poor decisions (involving health care or finances in particular), your opportunities for influencing their decision-making process remain severely limited. You may realize that, at a certain point, the optimal approach to maintaining financial stability for the elderly involves transferring as much property as possible out of their control as early as practicable, convincing your parents to let other members of the family control their finances may be just plain impossible. The same could be said for decisions regarding their health care and living conditions. Although the stresses on aging parents elicit a lot of sympathy, there’s a lot less attention paid to the stresses on you folks going through midlife. For many – if not most – people, this can be a thankless or even impossible task.
Although there are a number of practical things that you can do to prepare yourself and your family for the responsibilities that will, sooner or later fall to you (assuming that you haven’t yet passed through that phase of your life): the most important (and, perhaps the most effective) of these approaches will be actually sitting down and talking with your parents and the other members of your family on an on-going basis. These are difficult conversations, and no one enjoys taking on themselves the responsibility of broaching these subjects. However, the earlier and more often you’re able to do this, the more manageable the situation will be later on. Whether or not there are practical solutions to the problems posed (and faced) by aging parents, the more communication there is around these topics (with whomever is willing to listen), the more awareness there will be, and the less aggravation you’ll experience from an already difficult situation.
Providing care for aging parents will necessarily involve making some very difficult choices. The earlier and more openly you’re able to face those choices, the more choices there will be. Ignoring the situation, hoping it’ll go away solves nothing, because, sooner or later, these issues will land in your lap and you will have to make decisions based on your sense of love and obligation as a child as well as on the options that you’ve provided for yourself. You can’t avoid the midlife stresses that aging parents will inevitably present; but you don’t have to fall into the aging parent trap. You can have choices if you’ll only face the issues openly and thoughtfully.