A Few Words From Us Adult Children to Our Aging Parents
As I approach my 45th birthday, it is becoming more and more apparent that the phase of life I am in has started to change in dramatic ways. I am definitely starting to feel the passing of time physically as my body transitions, (rather dramatically), out of my reproductive years, develops chronic pain conditions and my skin begins to lose its youthful texture. Even though I do not feel “old”, there is an element of being firmly in adulthood that is starting to make me ponder mortality in a newer more immediate way. I have also started to realize that I, and most of my peers are having the shared experiences of watching our own parents age, decline and take their eternal leave. To a greater or lesser degree, this very normal progression of life brings with it a number of complicated and mixed emotions, many of which need to be shared with our parents who may not be aware of what it is like to watch them age as many of them buried their own parents years ago.
The population of many industrialized countries is aging. In Canada, it has been established that the group of people over the age of 85 is the fastest growing age group in the country. The same has been found to be true in Jamaica, the largest of the islands in the English-speaking Caribbean. Naturally, there are wide implications at the macro level of industrialized countries but, the impact at the individual level must also be discussed.
As someone with a number of older relatives in my life, and the privilege of having a mother who is still “with us”, I think it is important to highlight some of the concerns that my age cohort is experiencing watching those who were once formidable presences in our lives age. There are things we want you to understand as our loving parents that may be hard for you to hear, but are nevertheless important for you to know.
1. When you don’t take care of yourself, it results in us feeling extremely worried and stressed about your welfare.
Many of my friends and I are experiencing the stress of trying very hard to respect the autonomy you deserve while balancing that against the pain of watching you refuse to do the things you need to to do take care of your health. Refusing to go to the doctor is a very common theme among the group of people who once rushed us to the doctor as soon as we sniffled or coughed. You fussed over our health and made sure we ate healthy foods, exercised, attended to our hygiene, got our eyes checked and took every other imaginable action to ensure our well-being.
We learned the importance of this from watching you. So imagine now how hard it is for us to comprehend your decisions to refuse to do the same for yourself now that we are grown! I have had many tearful conversations with friends and relatives about how hard it is to have to try to convince you to tell us the truth as it relates to your health and to practically force you to see your medical professionals while you get angry and tell us off. Imagine our frustration when you tell us you are doing this to “protect” us. Protect us from what exactly? As your children, we have observed you our whole lives. We are able to intuitively tell when something is not right with you and, it is painful when you try to reassure us that you are fine when we can see as plainly as daylight that you are not.
2. Please be honest with us about your financial situation. We can’t intervene at the absolute crisis point without it causing high levels of distress for us.
Among people of colour, there is a point at which most of us become aware that we have to give some financial support to our retired parents as we know that your pensions are rarely enough to take care of all your bills amidst ever increasing inflation. We know that you don’t want to feel “dependent” on us because of the loss of dignity for you that accompanies that experience. However, the longer you delay the scale of your problem, the harder it is for us to address it when you finally tell us you need our support.
A problem that could have costed us a small, manageable amount before can quickly become a very expensive venture coming at the worst possible time for us financially. By not telling us and waiting until things escalate to full on crisis is not protective in any way. Most of us will tell you that any anger we may feel towards you in these situations is not because of your need, it is because of your unwillingness to have spoken up earlier when we could have budgeted to help you without the sense of urgency that blindsides us when you finally tell us what is really happening.
3. When you downplay the seriousness of your illnesses or outright lie to avoid worrying us, it leaves us confused, hurt and betrayed when you die “unexpectedly”.
Most recently, parents of those close to me have died after deliberately hiding the severity of their illnesses from their children. The pain expressed and experienced by those they left behind is excruciating and incomprehensible since there is the element of hurt about being deceived by the people who discouraged lying in childhood. Most of us would rather to know that we are nearing the end of our physical relationship with you so that we can prioritize those last, precious days together.
We do understand that your autonomy as you face the end of your life is essential for you however, when you have left this plane of existence, it is us who are left to mourn you. You may not remember this but, it was also a lifelong scar in your own psyche when your parents took their leave. However you may or may not have felt about that, please be mindful that our sense of loss is also very real and eternal to us. By never allowing us the chance to be with you as you transition, you leave us with guilt, unanswered questions and layers of pain that takes years of therapy to address. Does that truly sound like the results you want?
4. Most of us are less interested in inheritance and more interested in time with you.
Time with you is the one thing that is finite and priceless. It does not matter how much money you leave us, most of us would rather to have made memories with you in life rather than spend your money after you die. We love you and would rather to not inherit anything at all and have you around so please do not feel that you need to avoid doing things for yourself because you do not want to “dip into what you will leave for us”.
5. The thought of losing you fills us with immense grief.
It is often hard for us to talk about you being gone because as your children, our entire lives have progressed with you as a constant presence. Friends may come and go, jobs change, children grow up but, you were always there. The idea that the day will come when we will never see you again, hear your voice or benefit from your counsel fills us with dread. Remember what it was like for you to suddenly realise that you are an orphan because your own parents are gone? We feel exactly the same way about you. In truth, this is why we fuss over you as much as we do.
We know that sometimes our desire to protect you can be experienced as infantalizing. We would benefit from you telling us this and working with us to support you in a way that meets your needs in the way you would like. Boundaries are still good for us even though we are adults ourselves. We do have the emotional capacity to handle these conversations even though they may be difficult to have.
Most of all, what we as your adult children want you to know is that you have impacted us in deeply significant ways. Regardless of what our relationship is with you, your influence on who we have become is very real. For those of us lucky enough to have had good relationships with you, we see you as the most enduring relationship in our lives. Any frustrating behaviour on our part to preserve your well-being comes from a good place even if we don’t always handle it well. As our parents, your final lessons to us can include helping us to accept help and support so we do not feel that we have to face the end of our lives alone. You can model for us once again that self-care is still important and that aging does not mean that we should give up on ourselves.