Gosh, It Must Be Hard Caring for Aging Parents. Here’s What It’s Like to Be One.

Snapshots of life at home.
Jan. 17 2014 8:08 AM

Not Dead Yet

The trials of being—not caring for, not dealing with but BEING—an aging parent.

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Just because we're older than you doesn't mean we're losing it.

Photo by Brankica Tekic/Thinkstock

The Internet is awash these days with stories about aging parents—suffering, terminal, demented, irritating, just plain old old parents. How difficult it is to care for them, how to evaluate nursing homes, how to broach important subjects like wills, funerals, power of attorney, DNR, so on into the night. A recent article urged people to use the holiday season to bring up these matters—after all, Mom and Dad will be right there, presumably eager to hear what plans you’ve made for their imminent collapse/demise.

OK. It makes a certain amount of sense. Baby boomer issues have had a stranglehold on the media for the past 60 years or so. There are a lot of us, and now we are aging. And dealing with aging parents can cause difficulties, true enough; it can be comforting to hear how others have handled these situations.

Comforting, that is, for those who have aging parents. Not always all that comforting to the aging parents themselves.

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As a member of this latter group, I have drawn up a few pointers I’d like to share with everyone out there whose parents have managed somehow to get beyond 65, 70, 75, even further. Things to keep in mind:

We’re not dead yet. Most of us aren’t even that out of it. There is a certain facial  expression many of us start seeing in our adult children around the time we hit 65. It involves a faint tilt of the head, accompanied by an intense, pained stare, not unlike that caused by a sudden gastro attack. I’ve named it the “uh-oh, she’s starting to lose it” look. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re either lucky or haven’t been paying enough attention (or are losing it). Nearly anything can bring it on: a mispronounced name, a forgotten date.

Undoubtedly, this look is a direct effect of all the attention given to the aging-parent problem lately. Recently a certain statistic has made the rounds, and it’s unquestionably a scary one: Fifty percent of all people over 85 are at risk of developing Alzheimer’s. If that’s scary to you, dear children, think of how scary it is to us! But also remember the other 50 percent—those not developing Alzheimer’s. And those of us in our 70s who aren't part of that stat and don't need it forwarded to us, thanks. You too forget your keys now and then.

Other things, too, can bring on the look. Being less knowledgeable than one’s children about current cultural references, for instance. True, we may be unclear on which Kardashian sister is which, or even worse, what the point of knowing this is—but this does not mean we’re losing it. Same goes for our iPad learning curve. We were fully grown when the technology revolution roared into being. So, admittedly, it may take us longer to learn how to use some of the most popular tools of the day. (Though many of us have discovered that Google can be a senior’s best friend when it comes to memory, 18 percent of us are wedded to our smartphones, and way more are on Facebook). Does our lack of tech savvy bother you? Ha. Just ask yourself who is more at ease with everything tech out there today—you or your 4-year-old? And realize, while you’re at it, that you are NEVER going to be as at ease with all this stuff as your 4-year-old. And that’s just now: Imagine how hard it’s going to be to master all the new tech marvels coming down the road. That sound you hear in the background will be us, your parents, chuckling from the great beyond. Or possibly the next room.

Now, the grandkids. Too many of you assume we know nothing, as befits anyone on their way out, about raising children. One of my friends raised three of them, and is a pediatric nurse practitioner who operated a wellness clinic, and served as a professor at two medical schools. She is, however, 70, so how can she know anything about babies? Once when she was attempting to calm her crying 6-month-old grandson, she flipped on the TV to distract him. It worked immediately—but a few minutes later she heard a key in the door. She nearly wrenched her back trying to get the TV turned off before her son and daughter-in-law got inside. Because all TV is bad for babies, no matter what or when.

It’s not that I don’t trust the studies that say this. It’s just that we did things differently raising you because that was how it was done back then, and because for the most part, everyone does it the way it’s being done at the time. It takes a highly unusual person to forge her own path, make her own rules, particularly when it comes to child rearing, and most of us weren’t that unusual. We put our babies to sleep on their stomachs, let them bike without helmets, strapped them into poorly made car seats, and even worse, occasionally had a glass of wine while they were still in utero. We used white bread, and tuna fish and hot dogs and took everyone to McDonald’s. Horrifying, I know. We’re perfectly willing to learn today’s rules and apply them to our precious grandchildren, whom, you undoubtedly have realized, we adore beyond measure. We understand the reasons behind the new guidelines. But it would be nice if you would realize we did the best we could back then according to the information of the day—exactly like you’re doing now—instead of giving us the “you did what?” routine. Who knows, there may even be more information and different rules coming down the pike that will affect your own grandchildren. You too may someday hear that sharp intake of breath that comes when a grown child realizes exactly how much jeopardy you put them in when they were growing up. I won’t even get into some of the stuff our own parents did. 

But there are signs of hope. At a recent toddler get-together I attended, one little guy stumbled and fell, receiving a sizeable bump on his forehead. Amid all the hysterical fuss, I did what I would have done long ago—quickly prepared a cold compress. Later the mother told me she had seen how unexcited I was and instantly relaxed. “I knew then it wasn’t serious,” she said. Her tone was matter-of-fact, so I just nodded. I never let her know she’d made my day.

Judy Oppenheimer is the author of Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. She has written for the Washington Post Magazine, Washingtonian, and Salon.

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