For most of us, our parents are just there — seemingly invincible as we grow up. Once we leave home, we’re on a mission to move into our own adulthood with our parents moving to the background, but still a solid, if often unacknowledged, presence. As we move on with our lives, creating careers, marriages, and possibly children, most parents continue to be involved in some capacity.
Many families are close, while others can be both physically and emotionally more distant. Still, there is a parent-child relationship that younger people rarely think deeply about. It just is.
Then there’s that first time when it really registers with you that your parents are aging. Perhaps this awareness occurs after one of them has suffered an emotional or physical trauma. Or it could even strike during a time of seemingly little significance, such as bright sunlight highlighting some gray in mom’s hair, or a strong reading lamp enhancing the sag in dad’s once firm jawline. This new reality may simply nudge you, or it may sock you in the gut, but reality it is. Your parents are aging. They are on their way to “being old.”
We’re just being human when we overlook the obvious
It’s human nature not to look carefully at people or things that we see often, so we shouldn’t be surprised when our parents’ aging comes as a shock. Your silly teenage business of anyone older than you being “old” resolved itself as you matured, so you know that isn’t the cause. This truly is wear and tear that you’re seeing on your parents and it’s scary.
I remember the first time I realized that my parents were getting older. It came as a shock to me because I saw them often, so changes weren’t that noticeable on a daily basis. Then, my dad had a terrible prostate problem that hospitalized him. It was bad enough that his life was endangered for a short time until an infection was cleared up, but then the antibiotic nearly killed him. He lived, but this was the first time that I realized how terrifying it was that my parents were both aging and that one day they would die.
It’s not that we don’t know about life
Obviously, we are all aware that we can’t change the cycle of life. I’d lost my grandparents with whom I was very close. I’d lost an aunt at a fairly young age. Yet, perhaps because of my youth, I didn’t think about my parents’ vulnerability. They were still my emotional rocks. Maybe that’s how it’s meant to be. Young people really shouldn’t have the worry of losing the foundation their parents provide. Growing up and finding your way in the world is enough to worry about. But as we mature, we move to a different place in the story of life. We are expected to grow out of the self-absorption of youth and take on the mantle of a mature adult.
What’s most frightening with this new awakening is the changing dynamics
Once you’ve had this awakening, you’ll never be quite the same. You have transcended childhood and young adulthood. You have matured into a true adult, maybe not yet middle-aged, but working on it. And you have begun to realize your place in the cycle of life. Your family dynamics have shifted. You will have realized that your parents may not always be there to soothe away the bumps and bruises of your life.
This brings to mind something that you must guard against. Dynamics may be changing to a degree, but your parents are still your parents. As you take on a new role, do it gently. Absorb your new realization but don’t change your relationship with them. Even though they may seem suddenly older, this aging process took time, and further aging will also take time.
Depending on your parents’ ages and their health, you might realize that it’s time to talk about their wishes as they age, both for housing and their health. Powers of attorney should be assigned. Discussions about whether they want to age-in-place in their home or consider retirement living can become part of normal conversations so that when your parents actually need help, the topic isn’t a shock to anyone.
None of this should take place (barring an emergency) the moment you realize that your parents are growing older. This realization that you are suddenly coping with is more about you than them. You’re the one who suddenly changed. So, give it time.
Do, however, be aware. If there are bridges to be mended, put away your childish pride and work on mending them to whatever extent you can. Don’t expect to suddenly have a perfect relationship emerge if that is not your history with your parents. However, do consider the possibility that past issues could use some smoothing over.
Most likely, you love your parents and they love you. You all have imperfections — some glaring. It’s now time to see if you can let those imperfections take their proper place in the relationship and try to make love the overriding factor.
Depending on your parents’ ages, this may be the time to watch covertly to see if your parents are showing some vulnerability and are living in denial about the future. If this is true, it may soon be time for you to bring up the topics that surround aging. You’ll find that kind of talk will go much better if you’ve admitted some of your own imperfections and smoothed over some of the glitches from the past.
They aren’t dead yet!
Enjoy this time with your parents. Yes, they are getting older, but getting older is normal. They haven’t become incapacitated yet. They haven’t suddenly become incompetent. And, God willing, they aren’t dead yet. So enjoy the fact that they are alive and kicking. Celebrate in your heart that you are able to watch your parents grow old, even as you may grieve witnessing the loss of some of their vitality.
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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.