Some Thoughts on Aging Parents

I’ve had a draft of this post in various forms floating around for years and I felt that right now, on the cusp of Thanksgiving, when many families are getting together to celebrate a meal and a day together, it might be a good moment to write about the ins and outs of aging parents. I hope that some of this might spur healthy conversations in your family over the next few days.

My parents are still in pretty good shape. They’ve been retired for a few years and live together in the house I grew up in. My dad still has a nice garden, though it’s not as big as it was when I was a kid and there were a lot of mouths to feed and kids to help with the weeding. He still goes fishing when the weather is nice. My mom still cooks up a storm any time anyone in the family is within 100 feet of their house. They joke and banter with each other just like they always have. My mom still loves to dote on the grandkids and utterly wear herself out doing things with them. My dad still loves to dress up a little for Halloween and joke with children as he passes out candy.

Still, they’re getting older. That’s just the reality of how things go. Over the last several years, I’ve really had to come to grips with the idea that there will come a day when my parents aren’t around any more and I know from the conversations we’ve had that they know that day is coming, too. Hopefully, it’s many years off in the future, but they’ve reached a stage in their life where there are hints of their mortality everywhere, in the passing of their old friends, in the aging of their bodies, in the aches and pains, and so many other little things. They handle it with dignity and minimize how it impacts anyone else because that’s how they are, but I’ve been an observer of them for decades and I see it.

Over the last several years, I’ve done a lot of reading about what children should do to help their parents as they age and begin to have to deal with issues such as their retirement, their estate planning, and how to handle a big number of end of life issues. I’ve also had to process a few regrets of my own, of things left unsaid when people I care about have passed away unexpectedly with our relationship in a place that I didn’t like. That reading and thinking has spurred me into a lot of conversations and other things with my parents, and I’ve learned a lot from the experience. Here are six invaluable lessons I’ve learned over these last several years.

(It’s worth noting here that some parent-child relationships are burdened with some additional difficulties that aren’t really addressed here. What I’m generally discussing are relationships that are on generally good terms, but perhaps not as close as they could be, with both parents and children worried about what might come. I find this kind of relationship very common among my circle of friends and among many readers who have shared their thoughts over the years.)

Take the Time. You Won’t Regret It.

The biggest issue for many people who are middle aged with aging parents is time. You’re trying to sustain a career. You might be trying to build and maintain a strong marriage. You might be trying to raise kids. You probably want some time for your own hobbies and interests. You’re responsible for all of the things an adult is responsible for – household chores, bills, and so on.

Often, finding time for parents can seem really difficult. It’s easy to let a phone call to mom and/or dad slip your mind simply because they’re just a constant in your life. It’s so easy to feel like they’ll always be there, even though in your conscious mind, you might recognize that they won’t be.

My recommendation? Make time.

Block off some time for your parents on your calendar each week. Give them a call (if you live remotely) and just talk about life. If you live anywhere nearby, stop by for a while.

Literally insert a block of time into your weekly calendar to call your parents or visit them. Once every month or two, block off time to spend an afternoon with them. Spend that afternoon with them just hanging out or taking care of little things that they need done around their home.

There are a bunch of reasons for this, but I’ll give you two.

First, spending time with your parents before they’re gone is one of those “important but not urgent” tasks we all have in our lives. So often, we let those things be trumped by things that are “urgent but not important” – a television show we’re itching to watch or an online conversation or something like that. We tell ourselves that the “important but not urgent” thing can be done later… until it can’t, and we feel like we’ve failed. I feel this way about at least one relationship in my life, and it’s an awful way to feel. Don’t let it happen. Always prioritize “important but not urgent” things like spending some time with your parents while they’re still around over “urgent but not important” things like the big game on television.

Second, it’s that consistent time that opens the door to enough trust that they’ll actually talk straight with you about what’s going on. Without that trust, your parents are very likely to not let on what’s actually happening with them and try to minimize any worry you might have. Often, that results in a “funhouse mirror” image of their actual situation. Strong relationships, ones where you can break through that “public face” and actually talk about deeper issues, are ones that require time.

If you genuinely, authentically want to be there to help your parents during the latter years of their life and to have some good quality time with them before they pass, you’ve got to make that time. There’s no shortcut around it.

Ask Them What They Want, and Let That Take the Lead

My parents and I have had several conversations about what they want done with their estate, conversations that just wouldn’t have happened without a lot of quality conversations and time spent together as adults that care about each other.

Without those conversations, I might very well have substituted my own ideas for what they wanted out of the remainder of their life and operated based on those assumptions. In truth, however, those ideas are actually what I want for myself late in life, not necessarily what they want for themselves late in life.

This would have probably caused me to push them in a direction they didn’t want, one that they would have either fought against (making us both unhappy) or acquiesced to (making them very unhappy). Neither one helps me to figure out what they actually want, and they both do damage to our relationship.

The best solution here is to ask them what they want, and listen. Close your mouth. Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next. Listen. Listen carefully. Even if they’re not directly telling you what they want, they’re still often telling you indirectly, and you can pick up on that quite easily if you just listen and afford them that respect.

You can start to build the kind of relationship where you’ll get an honest picture of things by listening to the smaller stuff. Listen to what’s going on in their life and what’s important to them, without interjecting your own thoughts or tales of your own activities (do some of that, sure, but let them talk, too) and what you think they should be doing. Let them tell you.

That will build over time into conversations where you can talk about what they want in terms of their estate and in terms of the rest of their years.

Figure Out Their Goals (Not Yours) and Come Up With Very Simple Steps to Help Them Get There

Your relationship is strong enough that you can easily talk about what the future holds for both of you. That’s a good first step. The next step is to talk about goals and planning for those goals.

What do they want their upcoming years to look like? What do they want their estate plans to look like? Start with very open ended questions like these, and let them tell you what they have in mind in a very open ended way.

The thing is, the more specific you make those kinds of questions, the more you’re guiding them toward what it is that you want. As I noted above, that’s one of the surest ways to cause such a conversation to turn into a conflict. You might want an elderly parent to go to a retirement home and they are flat-out not ready to do so, so if you turn the question into “when are you going to the home, Mom?” it’s going to be bitter.

Instead, ask something like “how would you like the next several years to go, Mom?” Tell her that you want to know what she wants to do so you can help make that happen as easily and peacefully as possible.

Often, this kind of conversation is helpful for everyone involved. It lets the person being asked to actually articulate what they want, and it lets the person listening get a very clear picture of what the other person wants. It removes the issue that both sides might substitute other factors into the picture – pleasing the other person and taking the easiest path are both removed.

Once you have that picture, you can start talking about how to get there, and the best way to handle that is to break it down into one small piece at a time. Often, big tasks like making a will or planning an estate can seem overwhelming on their own, but if you work together to break it down into a checklist, or even one single task that constitutes a step in the right direction, it becomes much more manageable and everyone involved can feel like you’re working toward that vision.

They Might Not Take Your Advice… and That’s OK

There are going to be times where you think you have the perfect plan for where your parents seemingly want to go… and then they just don’t do it. It can feel frustrating. Really frustrating.

The thing is, there’s usually a really sensible reason for this, and it’s not a good reason to get upset. Here are a few potential causes for it.

One, the “plan” you constituted together isn’t one they’re on board with. The plan you came up with together to get to that destination they want might be more “your” plan than theirs, and they have a different way of getting there. This often happens when there are plans that involve other people and your parents simply want to handle things differently than you do. In this case, be patient. Just ask for updates once in a while and let it be. Don’t push it through, because there may be dynamics you’re unaware of.

Two, your parents may not be as on board with the big goals as you thought they were. It is extremely easy to “push” your parents toward a goal that you want rather than the one that they want, and if you do that, they’re often going to be agreeable with you in the moment but then not take any steps forward toward that plan because it’s not something they want. If you find that nothing is happening toward that goal, stop pushing and go back to the drawing board. Let them lead with regards to the goal.

Three, the next step might be a very big step and they’re apprehensive about it. We all do it – we know what we need to do next and we even want to do it, but it’s a big frightening step, so we procrastinate. A good way to handle this is to simply offer gently to go along with them as they’re doing it, whatever that step might be. I’ve gone along with my parents for a few things as they change account beneficiaries and so on, things that I know they could have done on their own but they were simply more confident to handle if I was there. In those cases, I just simply offered to be there when they did it if they wanted and they pretty much jumped up at that offer. Just offer to go along with them when they take care of a task.

The key here is to not respond by getting upset or angry. The best thing you can do in these situations is either make the next step as easy as possible or help them rewind and start working toward a goal that’s more meaningful for them. Getting upset or angry doesn’t achieve either goal and drives a wedge.

Consider What You Want When You’re That Age

This is perhaps the most useful thing I’ve done in terms of knowing what to do and how to handle these kinds of conversations and situations. I simply think about what I might be like when I’m their age.

What I’ll want more than anything at that time, I think, is meaningful conversation and time together. I want to be a part of my children’s lives as adults in a meaningful way, not as a burden. I want to be able to help them in meaningful ways and they help me in meaningful ways so that we both benefit from that relationship.

Given that, I try to aim for being on the “child” side of that equation with my own parents. I help them with some things. They help me with some things. Often, they help me by being an ear to listen when I need to vent about challenges (often related to parenting and time commitments) and sometimes with child care. I help them with other things, like travel arrangements and being a sounding board for some things and, yes, some estate planning.

I want them to be a positive addition to my life and I try to look for ways where they can do that. It is helpful for both of us when that happens.

Be Patient

Patience is a virtue that’s often hard to come by in this modern era where things often happen at the blink of an eye. We want an answer now. We want results now.

This isn’t a situation for now. This is a situation for patience.

Having a successful relationship with aging parents is an exercise in patience, in regular conversations over years and years, with a step here and a step there. It’s very likely that things like figuring out the future and estate planning are just not going to happen overnight. They’re going to take quite a while.

And that’s okay.

This is one of those situations where the journey matters more than the destination. Sure, you’ll eventually wind up with an estate plan and some clear decisions about what to do, but if you do it over the course of a lot of regular conversations and afternoons spent together, what will actually be built is a strong relationship between adults who genuinely care about each other, and that has far more value than the specifics of an estate plan or anything like that.

Be patient. Build to the point where the conversations that need to occur happen naturally and between people who really trust and love each other. That takes time. That takes a lot of conversations and phone calls and visits.

The thing is, along the way, those conversations and phone calls and visits build into something valuable on their own, something that helps you through difficult moments right now and will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Eventually, through patience, the estate planning and the end-of-life planning goes from being difficult to being something you handle together with a lot more ease and a lot more trust. You have to build to that, though. It takes a lot of time, but the process is infinitely rewarding.

So, What Can I Do This Holiday Season?

If you’re like many Americans and you’re going to be spending time with your parents and other loved ones this week, here are some specific things you can do to start putting this all into practice.

Listen. Have conversations with your parents in which you really listen to them. Turn off the voice in your head that’s formulating what you’re going to say next and just listen, both to what they’re saying and to what’s left unsaid.

If you find that to be a struggle, ask questions. I find that asking questions is the magic formula for good conversation, because it gives the other person something to talk about, and if you genuinely listen, more questions bubble up, and then they’ll ask questions back, and before you know it, you’ve had a nice long meaningful conversation. Have a healthy number of those and you’re building a strong relationship.

Don’t substitute what you want for what they want. You might really want your parents to have a concrete estate plan in place and a concrete end-of-life plan in place. You might even think you know exactly what those plans should be. Check that thinking, right now. That’s what you want, not what they want.

Put the things you want in the backseat for a while. See if you can gently figure out what they want through lots of conversation and listening, and put that first. Don’t substitute what you want for what they want.

Start a consistent pattern of conversation and contact and time together, especially if you don’t have one. Having a couple good conversations during the holidays isn’t a substitute for a strong ongoing relationship. Let it be a starting point, but literally schedule the time to keep those conversations going. Block out an hour on your calendar once a week to have a real conversation. Send a text every once in a while, too. Plan an afternoon to stop by just to have coffee or do a little task around the house or go grocery shopping together (or get the groceries, if needed).

The key thing is to do this consistently over a long period of time. It’s a small bite out of your time, but it’s strengthening the foundation of that relationship so that the trust is there when it’s really needed.

It’s going to be difficult sometimes. You will have to face tasks and difficulties that you really don’t want to face. Remember two things. One, your parents likely don’t want this, either. No one wants to age. It doesn’t come easy for anyone, no matter what their public face is saying. Two, this is your chance to repay some of what your parents have done for you over the years. They fed you and provided shelter for you for the first two decades of your life. Hopefully, they were supportive in other ways as well, though no one is perfect. There were times when you were unbelievably difficult, and yet they were still there. Don’t forget that.

The specifics of the estate plan and other plans come second (at most). Your focus should be on a strong relationship, where you mutually help each other. If you can build that, then when they’re actually ready to make those decisions, they trust you and know that you’ll help with their wishes. You’ll find, as I have, that if you do this, such conversations just come naturally and the situation resolves itself far more elegantly than you might have ever thought.

Don’t force the conversation. Instead, build the relationship to the point where the needed conversations happen naturally and effortlessly, and then the situation resolves itself peacefully. Along the way, you’ll build an invaluable relationship, and you won’t feel regrets when your parents do eventually pass on.

Good luck.