Integrating our elders into our lives can enrich theirs and ours

Our children closely observe how we respond to our aging parents’ needs. Our choices become their model for how to take care of us when we reach our golden years.

I loved visiting Dixie. She was my good friend’s mom, who moved in with him and his wife when she was 92. Dixie was a spritely, slender woman, with a twinkle in her eye. “I don’t take any pills or potions” (not entirely true, she did take eye drops for glaucoma); she loved to say, “I just have faith in the lord.” Dixie glowed with warmth and serenity, fired by her deep faith and love of family.

Sitting in her son and daughter-in-law’s living room, she was surrounded by grandchildren and great grandchildren. She was happy and content. She lived with her family for the next seven years, passing away in her easy chair at 99. I look at her picture every day. I miss her.

According to a 2020 Administration for Community Living report, the 85 and older population is projected to more than double from 6.6 million in 2019 to 14.4 million in 2040, a 118% increase. There’s no doubt about it—we are living longer and longer. One consequence of this graying of America is that more and more families have the trials and tribulations of caring for their aging parents.

It can be a blessing for families, as it was for Dixie’s family. But it can be challenging, too. In these times of geographic mobility, with families often separated by thousands of miles, it can be very difficult to help one’s aging parents. When an elderly parent lives far away and struggles with disabling health problems, adult children try to balance caring for younger children and older adults. It can be very stressful. Adults feel torn between their responsibilities for their children and their parents.

Older adults value their independence and dignity. My brother and I tried to convince my 87-year-old aunt to stop driving after she fell asleep at the wheel while parking her car in the garage. She politely listened to our pleas but had no intention of giving up her license. In many areas, including here in Snohomish County, giving up your driver’s license means giving up your independence. No wonder it’s a struggle to convince aging adults it’s time to stop driving.

Our elders can enrich our lives. I grew up in an extended family. My grandmother lived with us and she was a wonderful influence in my life. She also provided invaluable help to my mother, who went to graduate school when I was in elementary school. I’m fortunate in other ways. My mother lived in Florida when she was over 85. I, and her grandchildren, visited her frequently. We all benefited from her accumulated wisdom of 92 years, when she passed away. In fact, several of her great-grandchildren were named after her.

Our challenge, in this generation, is to integrate our elders into our lives in ways that balance the needs of, one, their dignity and independence; two, our responsibilities to our children; three, our relationships with our spouses; four, our elders’ need for care; and five, everything else in our lives, including our jobs.

Here are some important things to remember:

Be realistic. While we would like to live up to everyone’s expectations, it’s probably not possible. Focus on what you can accomplish realistically – unrealistic expectations of self can foster disappointment and guilt.

Be patient. Difficult conversations and choices take time to implement. It is very hard for older adults to make change, even if it’s necessary. Moving, giving up control over some aspects of their lives, or struggling with difficult health choices can take time to accomplish.

Work together with siblings. Nourish good relationships with your siblings. Being on the same page with brothers and sisters can make a big difference in addressing problems of aging parents.

Our children closely observe how we respond to our aging parents’ needs. Our choices become their model for how to take care of us when we reach our golden years.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.

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