Middle age ushers in a multitude of changes.
For many, it’s a time when we have to deal with the aging and death of our parents.
I attended my 40th high school reunion this summer and nearly everyone I talked to said they were coping with this in various ways.
Some related the passing of one, or both of their parents. Some mentioned how they had taken one or both of the parents into their homes, helped them down-size into other living arrangements or arranged to have them put in nursing homes.
Others told stories of how their mothers or fathers were suffering from various health problems, including dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
All through our lives, we have looked to our parents, seeking their support, their direction and approval as we sailed through the rough seas and shoals of life.
In middle age, the tables are often turned. The challenge is that many parents hesitate, or are too proud when it comes to looking to their children for assistance. Others are in denial or try to hide that they need support and help, and feel it is none of our business – until a crisis occurs.
Navigating through these tough times is not harder for our generation. It’s just hard in different ways.
One big factor is we live in a more mobile society. In many cases, either the children are scattered all over the country or the parents have relocated away to warmer climes.
Helping out from great distances, or taking vacation and personal time to travel and help a parent through a medical emergency or some other issue makes a stressful situation even more difficult.
Coupled with the distance factor is the reality that in today’s economy husband and wife are often working full time. These two factors make it challenging to take in mom and dad and provide day-to-day care – let alone doing such things as helping them through physical setbacks, taking them to doctor’s appointments or even something as simple as stopping by the house to see how they’re doing.
Yes, independent or assisted living situations and nursing services are more plentiful today, but continue to be expensive. The end result is many parents end up living in their homes longer than they should.
In addition, advances in medical care have extended our parents’ lives longer than previous generations. Sadly, this can result in a cascade of escalating health crises and hospitalizations. We’re all too aware of situations that culminate in us saying “It was a blessing” when their lives finally end.
I’m really not a prime example for all this. My mom was 51 when she died, a victim of breast cancer.
When my wife, Laura, first met mom, she was in a hospital bed, in advanced stages of the disease. To this day, I get teary eyed when I think about how mom never got to meet our children, Alex and Katie, who I know she would have loved dearly.
Dad remarried and lived until he was 84, dying more than two years ago from a heart attack.
As Dad got older, he began having health issues. He was in denial about his poor hearing and unsafe driving. It was coming to the point where someone had to take his driver’s license away. He was exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and we began bracing ourselves for the worst.
I complained about him at a family Christmas gathering a couple of years before he died. My brother-in-law, Tom, heard me whining and set me straight.
“I can’t stand here and listen to this,” he said. “My father died last year and I’d eat dirt right now to bring him back – even for a day. Appreciate your father while he’s here. When he’s gone, he’s gone.”
From then on, I vowed to do my best to show and tell Dad how much I appreciated him. I visited him in West Virginia three weeks before he died. I’m so, so glad I did. Before the visit, I hadn’t seen him in a year. It was great to be with him, but deep down I was upset over how his health had worsened.
Sometimes death seems so unfair, so drastic, so devastating. I find myself thinking at times about advice that Lucille, a co-worker, gave me when I was younger after I told her about how I was having trouble dealing with the fact that my mom died so young.
Life is a book, she said, full of chapters. Death is a part of life, a part of everyone’s book. When it happens, you mourn, you give thanks for the time you had with that individual and how they affected your life.
When it comes to your parents, though, they will always hold a special place in your memories. But eventually, you must read on – turning the pages to see what’s next.
Lately, when the parents of friends and co-workers die, I try to make it a point to check out the person’s obituary. When I write a card or when I offer my condolences face to face, I strive to say something that’s comforting, to show I really care.
I especially take note when both parents are gone. Sometimes it’s unexpected. Other times, like I’ve already said, it’s a blessing because of health problems.
Either way, a parent dying is a lonely, sad milestone. Not having any parents who are still alive makes you feel like an orphan.
It’s not easy. But as Lucille advised, you just have to keep turning the pages.