The Long Decline

Over Easter weekend, Sarah and the kids and I drove four hours to visit my parents. I always enjoy these visits because, well, I like my parents, not only because I respect and value how they raised me, but for the people that they are.

One thing I couldn’t help but notice, though, is how my dad is starting to age. He spent most of the afternoon doing his annual spring trimming of the bushes along the edge of my parents’ driveway. In years’ past, this would have taken him between an hour and an hour and a half of nonstop work. This year, though, he spent most of the afternoon going at it, stopping for breaks about every fifteen minutes or so.

My father is one of the most active people I’ve ever met and he’s slowing down.

This realization – and the realization of the impact that his decline and eventual passing will have on my mother – has made me spend the last few days thinking deeply about how to handle this situation. It’s a situation that many people face as they reach their thirties and forties and fifties: how do I take care of mom and dad after they spent twenty years of their life taking care of me?

Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about.

Part of me would like to live near them so I can help. One advantage of having a “work at home” career like I have is that I can live pretty much anywhere I want. If we so chose, we could easily move to the area where they live. If that happened, I would love to be able to stop in each day, see what help they needed, take care of some errands for them, and so on. An additional advantage is that it would let our children get to know their grandparents well before they pass on.

Another part of me doesn’t want to because of the culture. At the same time, I don’t want to move back there. The cultural opportunities and beliefs are, in some ways, very different than the values and beliefs I want my own children to have. Perhaps worst of all would be the general cultural rejection there of reading, learning, and growing as a person. My parents (and Sarah’s) are really exceptions to this rule, but the culture of the school district and community was such that I spent most of my school years firmly believing that I was going nowhere in life. I want my children to feel the opposite of that. I want them to feel that the world is enormous and filled with opportunity and that they can take ahold of those opportunities, and the culture outside of our home there would not encourage that, I’m afraid.

Their estate planning is vague (at best) and they resist efforts to get it in good shape. After our child is born (at this point, my wife is not up for further traveling until after the baby arrives), I’m going to plan a weekend with my parents where we get all of their estate planning in shape. This will probably involve my siblings and anyone else who needs to have a voice in the process. Doing this will certainly alleviate my own worries (and probably theirs, too, if they actually face the process).

What will they do when one of them passes? I’m not merely talking about the divesting of their assets, I’m talking instead about how much they rely on each other. They have the most symbiotic marriage I have ever witnessed, with each person carrying certain tasks so well that the other person simply has never had to function in that capacity. While this is great in some ways, it will be very difficult when one of them passes on.

This results in a “to-do” list of sorts.

First, I’d like to increase the frequency with which we visit my parents in the next few years. We usually visit them once every two months or so (on average). I’d like to increase that frequency as best I can.

Second, I need to help them organize their estate planning this summer. This is perhaps the most direct action I need to take. I’ve already got a notebook started with notes and thoughts about how to carry this off, along with some potential dates picked out.

Finally, I need to have some heartfelt conversations with each of them about what to do if the other one passes. What type of support will they really need in that situation? Will they be able to survive on what income is still coming in? Will they need additional support? I know that if they do, I’ll probably be the child that provides it, so I’d like to be able to hash this out now so I can prepare a bit for it.

To put it simply, helping one’s parents as they get older involves a lot of challenging issues, and it’s important to work through the issues and deal with them now while you still easily can.

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