Caring for Aging Parents

Caring For Aging Parents:  Embracing Aging and Disability

—by Zoe McNamara for


I have not seen much discussion on the subject of caring for aging parents, although this situation can certainly change the dynamics and perhaps even the composition of a household.  I started thinking seriously about it six years ago, when my then-employer began offering and aggressively promoting Long Term Care Insurance. 

That year, my parents were almost too old to sign up for the program. I wanted to enroll them, but didn't. It was a useful exercise, though, because it made me aware of the costs associated with varying degrees of home health care. I had to ask myself some uncomfortable questions, and face the possibility of their eventual physical decline.

There I was envisioning my family in five to eight years to include a pair of German Shepherds, a well-worn off-road vehicle, an old house with a barn and a couple of horses for my kids. I was hard-pressed to add a version of me caring for aging parents to the picture. Have a look at my Resources for Those Caring for Aging Parents

In most pre-industrial cultures, the final years of one’s life might be quite bitter. Folklore reflects resignation to the inevitability of impoverishment, loss of health, and loss of community status that, at one time, automatically accompanied advancing age.

Seniors today are wealthier, more savvy, and better educated than they have been in previous generations. As the fastest growing segment of society, they are world travelers, volunteers, motorcycle enthusiasts and marathon runners. Beautiful and exclusive resort communities are available to retired people who wish to pursue active lifestyles once the intense, hands-on part of their parenting years are past.

Here I smirk, because I've been told that only those who haven't yet become grandparents still believe the "intense, hands-on" part ends when the last child moves out. Realize too, that today's child is not in a hurry to leave home, and may stay on until well past voting age.

Communities for Active Seniors

But if your parents are not financially or physically able to manage in an active lifestyle community, or if they just prefer to live at home, be prepared for a shift in the roles you always had. The responsibility of caring for aging parents can present the double bind of competing needs when you have children of your own. It can require returning children to take a more aggressive role in the lives of people they've always seen as competent, knowledgeable and strong. An adult child caring for aging parents may find him or herself in the position of knowing a whole lot more about the way things work.

Aging and disability represent an utter loss of the perfection we’ve been socialized to expect from ourselves and others. They mean a loss of relationships; a loss of everything that we have, and everything that we are. Instead of accepting aging as a normal part of life, some prefer to embrace those who seem to make it go away; as seventy-seven-year- old astronaut John Glenn did when he returned to space. Active, productive roles are so dominant in American culture that an abundance of leisure time can look like an indication of failure rather than an opportunity for reflection.

The seemingly impossible but necessary role for the adult child of aging parents is this: First, make sure your little ones understand that aging and disability are natural processes, not opponents to be outsmarted or outrun, as some fairytales depict. If you're like me and you rarely watch anything but the children's channel and the Weather Channel, realize that the world has become a really different and sometimes scary place to grow up in—and not just because of post-911 concerns.

Children have to be much more circumspect now than ever before, and parents need to be sensitive to the burden that creates for a young, developing mind. If caring for aging parents means enlarging your household, then everybody needs to be on roughly the same page as far as child safety and values are concerned. Secondly, make absolutely certain that in fulfilling your responsibility to your parents, you don't derail your relationship with your kids. At the same time, parents have to consider the distinct possibility that cognitive child development could be enhanced by the presence of an extended family.

Third, if you are fortunate enough to have your parents living nearby, invite them to enrich your children’s lives on a regular basis. Let your children observe your interaction with your own parents, and watch as they benefit from the collective wisdom of three generations.

Finally, try to embrace aging and disability as a natural part of living. Recognize the need to stop fighting against, fearing, or being indifferent toward the inevitable. Being at ease, even embracing the processes that characterize the latter part of our lives, may enable us to have a more realistic attitude toward aging, may make us better able to assist our parents, and will certainly help us to make the task more manageable when it is our turn to be cared for. For these efforts, our children will be grateful.

copyright little 2003-2004. All rights reserved.