Getting old means needing help

Photo: Aron Visuals, Unsplash.

There will be enough of [my nephews and nieces], in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life can need. . . . I shall often have a niece with me. — Emma Woodhouse

In my 20s and 30s, conversations with my peers centered around concerns about children.

Are Cheerios OK? She isn’t talking much yet. Public, private or magnet school? 

I’ll turn 45 this year and, while we still talk about our precious offspring quite a bit, I’ve noticed a new topic showing up more often. 

This subject is more universal than kids. Not everyone has children, but everyone has parents.

He had no business getting up on that stepladder! She is unsteady on her feet, but I’d never dare suggest she use a cane. Should I be concerned that he told me the same story twice?

There is nothing more inevitable than growing old, and yet it is surprising when we watch our parents do it. What a shock to realize your mom isn’t up for hosting the Christmas festivities anymore. How astonishing that your dad stayed back at the cabin instead of going on the five-mile hike. 

Growing older is never a straight or obvious journey. Neither is caring for aging people. Personality, family dynamics, finances, health history, cultural norms and expectations vary from person to person. 

There is a unifying theme, however. We are all going to need help. 

The chance of someone living independently until their 90th birthday and then dying in their sleep — bringing neither pain nor bother to themselves or others — is pretty much zero. We are all going to need help. Many of us will need help for years and years. 

This was not so much the case for earlier generations. They died earlier. As one 80-year-old told me, “By the time I was your age [mid-40s], both my parents were gone. I never had to worry about taking care of them.”

Mortality from heart disease fell in the United States by more than half between 1950 and 1995. With blood pressure medication and advanced heart care, the chance of dying quickly from a stroke or heart attack, common killers in decades past, is far less likely. 

With all its benefits, modern medicine has perhaps given us a sense of invincibility. Living with a pacemaker for two decades won’t save us from other frailties and mental decline. 

We will need help. 

Which brings me to my point. 

Parents need to move geographically close to their children. (Sadly, no, the children will not move to you. They have jobs and maybe children still in school.)

Relocating is hard. It may feel impossible to leave your community and start all over again. Frankly, you may not get along well with your kid. 

All of those barriers will dissolve when you need rides to the doctor, someone to fill your pill box and get your internet working yet again. Studies have shown that the vast majority of caregiving is done by family members. Your next-door neighbor will not clip your toenails or help you transition to assisted living. When it is time for the hard stuff, you’ll need your family. 

On the other side, I’ve heard people my age say, “Oh, I could never live in the same town as my parents.” Yeah, well . . . see how you feel when you are flying across the country every couple of weeks to deal with one emergency after another. Driving across town will be a dream come true. 

I do elder care. I’m officially a home health aide, but in actuality I’m a paid, surrogate daughter or granddaughter (depending on my clients’ age). 

 I constantly communicate with children who live out of town, desperate for information about their loved one. What did she eat today? How is his mood? Is he using the walker? Is she hiding the toilet paper again? 

Three years ago, my in-laws moved to a condo just five minutes down the road from us. They live independently but acknowledge it won’t always be that way. They have given us the gift of allowing us to be there for them. 

Jesus said only seven things while he hung in pain and mental anguish on the cross. Along with forgiving the world and committing his soul to God, he made sure his mother had someone to care for her. 

Parents, your children love you and would like to follow Jesus’ example. We know it is asking a lot. We know it is a sacrifice. But do us a solid and come over to our neighborhood. Let us take care of you. 

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