Families Face Aging Parents – Trends and Struggles

Aging Trends and Obstacles of Legacy and Control

There are some things going on in our society now that makes aging, and the way families deal with it, different than it used to be. The issues below are things I see my clients facing as we discuss planning for aging and disability.

1. Better healthcare and longer life expectancy. That’s a good thing, right? Yes, but it leads to some challenges. If you live longer, your health issues may cause you to run out of money, your declining health may dramatically reduce your quality of life, or there’s even a chance your children may face declining health or even pass away before you do.

2. Earlier retirement. People are living longer, but retiring earlier. In 1910, the average retirement age was 74 years, meaning people often worked until they passed away or had to quit for health reasons. In 2002, the average retirement age was 62. Isn’t it nice to retire early? Yes, but it also leads to more planning pitfalls, i.e. more years to potentially get bored, lonely, or run out of money.

3. Families are more scattered. I know some people who have several households within the same family living on the same street. This is rare. More common is that parents have children scattered around different cities, different states, or even different ends of the country. When the family is so spread out, what does that mean for the parents as they age and need assistance? The magazine Christianity Today recently had a column (“Honor Thy Father” for Grownups) about honoring your parents by taking care of them in their old age. How does a family do that when there are 1000’s of miles in between? Often it means delegating the day to day assistance to professional care givers or medical personnel.

4. Communication between generations. David Solie’s book “How to Say it to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with our Elders” discusses the two main tasks facing older adults: how to maintain control and how to leave a legacy. Those issues can lead to both conflict as well as rewarding and meaningful conversations.

Let’s think about control

As a person ages, they are faced with losing control. Loss of health, friends, social status, ability to work, driving, choosing where they live, and control of money. All these evaporate as the years tick by. As they are already facing these things slipping away, along comes one of their kids. And what is he telling them? Stop driving, move to assisted living, go to the doctor, eat better, etc.

Is it any wonder that the older generation balks at the advice sometimes? Even if the advice is logical and right on target, it is still another threat to their independence and control. The control is already slipping away naturally and then comes a child wanting to (seemingly) speed up that loss. When a child pushes their elderly parent to make the “right” decision about some life circumstance, it can lead to frustration on both sides, with both feeling unappreciated.

Some people learn from experience that trying to convince our elders with logical arguments will get no where when the elder sees it as a threat to their independence and control. The author, David Solie, says we should stop fighting for control and instead be there to assist. When an older person is allowed the room to make a decision they will often come to a conclusion much more quickly than if they were pushed.

Those in the younger generation are constantly pushing forward to the next new thing. Older adults are sometimes faced with hanging on tight to avoid losing what they already have. Remembering each generation’s different perspective will hopefully reduce the frustration and conflict in those already difficult conversations.

Leaving a legacy

Unfortunately, some seniors spend so much energy and effort trying to maintain control that they never get to the second task of aging – reviewing their legacy. Leaving a legacy involves reflecting on life and how we will be (or want to be) remembered. Reflection means slowing down and focusing on past details. True reflection means a lack of urgency about current tasks.

This lack of urgency is another obstacle to a child pushing a parent to make decisions about a new living arrangement or some other decision that “must be made right now.”

For all us overly busy people, measuring our worth on errands done, emails sent, and whether we are caught up on our facebook status, it may be hard to relax and drop our task orientation.

However, when you hear an older person repeating a story or going into exhaustive detail, listen! You might see how the values in the story reflect the legacy that the storyteller wants to leave and how they would like to be remembered.