Aging Parents and Stress

I remember as a small child having a recurring fantasy of my parents’ deaths, and of being buried near to them so I could tunnel through to be close to them. Lest you think me particularly morbid, I would point out that both the Brothers Grimm and Disney have made a thriving industry out of children’s fascination with the deaths of their parents.

It doesn’t end at the age of majority, though. My good friend, Mike, a successful man in his mid-forties, happily married and with two great kids, speaks wistfully of being an orphan. Both his parents died relatively young and hard deaths of cancer, and in many ways, Mike has numbered his own days since. Losing a parent is like discovering one of the basic elements of life — air, fire, water — has suddenly disappeared from the planet. You go on, but everything is different and you mark events in your life Before and After.

The loss of a parent is undeniably one of the most stressful events anyone can endure.

The sudden death of a loved one is a terrible thing. It leaves us bereft and wishing we’d had more time. My mother died two days after the birth of my daughter. Mom was an amazingly strong woman in every way, a seventysomething who’d taken up both political activism and weight training at a relatively advanced age. Ironically, she died of a hemorragic stroke a week after surgery that was intended to reduce her risk of a stroke. The shock and sadness after her death were very real, but so was the outpouring of love and support from family and friends, and it was that love that carried us through.

There can be much more to it, though. For many of us, the time before the eventual death of a parent will be a long, slow, insidious decline. We have to stand by, at once hopeful and frightened, buoyed on up days, confused on down days, and troubled when we cross the invisible meridian and the down days out number the up days.

My father, a crusty but kind New Hampshire Yankee, followed an entirely different road than my Mom. Spry and active into his early 80s, on more than one occasion, I had to ask him to climb down from a snow-covered cherry tree in my yard with his chainsaw, just because I couldn’t bear the thought of explaining what had happened if he fell. For Dad, the road was a long and slow slope down. At first, we noticed that he was having a harder time with technical tasks. Writing and retrieving email — once one of his great daily pleasures — slowly but surely became too complex a chore. He never quite grasped how to manage his simple cell phone. This man who could rebuild a carburetor with his eyes closed and who had mastered analog fire control computers on WW II era bombers could no longer manage simple tasks. There came a day when he quietly admitted to my brothers and me he’d gotten lost on the way to his doctor’s office, and he essentially retired from driving. My dad spent the last year of his life in a memory care unit of a nursing home, polite and cheerful and relatively happily chattering with young nurses, but less sure of who I was — who he was — week by week.

Why do I tell you all this? Because as medical technology advances, more and more of us will face this situation: one or both parents in slow decline. Some of us will be called upon to play an active role in the care and management of aging parents. Others will have to look on with sadness and confusion as someone we love is diminished by the day. This is one of the most stressful situations we will ever encounter, but I’d like to offer a few small tips that might help you make the transition a little more easily.

  • Find help… Government agencies, whether local, state, and federal, often offer support services for seniors free of charge. If your loved one is in a care facility, get to know the case managers or social workers. They can be a great resource.
  • Get your legal ducks in a row before the situation is critical or complex. Work with your loved ones to prepare any “advanced directives” — medical power of attorney, durable power of attorney, “do not resuscitate” authorization (if applicable). Having these simple documents in hand is invaluable in case of acute or long term illness of a loved one.
  • Find a support network and take care of yourself. One of the most comforting things for me as I went through my Dad’s difficulties was having several close friends who were going through the exact same things at the same time. It meant always having someone to talk to, compare notes with, and learn from. It also meant always having a shoulder to cry on when things were tough. You can’t take care of your loved ones if you don’t take care of yourself.
  • Have the hard conversations about your loved ones’ wishes while they are still comparatively healthy and able to express their preferences. One of the greatest gifts our parents gave my brothers and me was to be utterly clear about what they expected of us should they ever be incapacitated. Their clarity on their wishes removed any doubt or ambiguity about what they would expect of us in a difficult situation — and in the end, sad as some of our decisions were, they were made much less stressful by my parents’ thoughtfulness in communicating with us.

I sincerely hope that any such decisions are a great many years off for you and your family — but I also hope that, should such a day ever come, your preparation will carry you through stressful times and allow you to thrive.

Andy Knight, meQuilibrium Product Team

Key Thought:

As medical technology advances, more and more of us will face a stressful situation: one or both parents in slow decline