Ken Druck’s book “Raising an Aging Parent: Guidelines for Families in the Second Half of Life” ($21.95, Redwood Publishing) has a name that notes that there comes a point in a parent-child relationship when the roles become reversed and acknowledges a child’s role in raising a parent up to have dignity in aging.
He writes of his own experience caring for his mother, who lived to 92. He says his sister sent his mom from New York to California to be with him and said, with a wink, “Tag, you’re it.”
For the next eight years, he was it.
“I write books in order to immerse myself in whatever transition, whatever stage of life or whatever season for life I’m going to,” he says. “I put together everything I'm learning and need to learn.”
It’s a transition, and a hard one. Druck says, “It was beautiful; it was treacherous. I used to think about all the times my mom wiped my butt.”
That made it easier to not have resentment.
One of the challenges was learning it’s OK to set limits. He would find his mom wanting him to spend hours with her when he had a list of many other things he needed to do. And when he would say he had to go, he would sometimes get a response laden with guilt: “I know you have more important things to do.”
He learned to tell her upfront how much time he had to make sure that her expectations were realistic. Like with kids, it’s not tough love, he says. “It’s love with limits.”
The key is to have that relationship, that trust and respect, in place before a crisis happens and decisions have to be made, he said.
Druck estimates that 75% of families wait too long to build the relationship. It’s more than a power of attorney or advance directive. It’s asking about their wants and values. It’s also getting all the family stories recorded before it’s too late. “It’s not just the problems to be solved,” Druck says.
He suggests making a list of topics you want to ask parents about and beginning to have those conversations. Sometimes it’s the kids who aren’t ready for these conversations; sometimes, it’s the parents.
Druck acknowledges that often with aging comes mourning the life that was, for both the parents and their adult children. What was might no longer be, but what is can be great, too. He says sometimes children will see their parents soften when it comes to the grandchildren. “They get smarter and more flexible and more understanding,” he says.
Sometimes in cases of dementia, it’s seeing a parent who no longer resembles the one you knew.
Even without dementia, children witness their parents struggling with health challenges or with no longer being able to maintain their own home. They are having to downsize or move in with children or to a senior center. Parents are often struggling with a change of identity and finding meaning in their lives. “Life is still a lease deal,” Druck says. “We have to come to terms with it.”
It’s important for parents to find value and meaning in their lives. That means continuing to do things for themselves, if those tasks are smaller, and finding ways to contribute their wisdom to others, especially a new generation. Druck suggests things like tutoring or reading to kids at a local school, taking lifelong learning classes or joining groups like a gardening club or a church choir.
Often old hurts can come up, especially with siblings. “We're going to either act out and act like we're still 15 or 10 years old, or we're going to grow up,” Druck says.
It’s important to make a plan together about how to gather resources, including time and talents, to best help your parents. That might mean having a sibling meeting that includes apologies.
“Realize that not everybody can achieve aging parent nirvana,” he says. “Every family will do the best they can. Some families will be able to communicate openly in these things.” For others, it might not be as easy.
“Do the best you can,” he says, “and be at peace that you did the best you could.”