Recently, a colleague sought prayer for discerning the role he and his wife should play regarding their aging parents. The request sparked a number of memories and suggestions as to what they could be doing now.
Though my parents have been gone for over a decade, the memories of their last years still linger. Fond reflections. Grateful thoughts, so, so thankful we did what we did in the final season of their lives.
What all did we do?
My parents’ health began to take a downturn in the 1980s and 1990s. My two brothers and I decided to seek their permission to bring in an attorney to address their final wishes and prepare their wills and powers of attorney, etc. Fortunately, they said yes, and we clarified their desires regarding end-of-life decisions and funeral arrangements. This proved quite helpful years later. I recall when the hospital doctor delivered the news about mom’s terminal condition; my brothers and I did not have to struggle with what decision to make. Mom had been clear about her end-of-life directives. Her desires, clarified from years earlier, kept us from making guilt-inducing decisions and removed the burden and struggle of having to make such a choice.
Once the wills and legal documents were handled, we purposed to spend as much time with them as possible during this last phase of their lives. Fortunately, my parents lived relatively close by, within twenty miles of us. They were able to spend time with their grandchildren, often serving as babysitters, dinner companions, or shopping partners. Making memories became a mission unto itself.
We also started to talk about family history and stories that they wanted to pass along. If I have any regrets, it’s that we failed to discuss these topics thoroughly, never realizing or anticipating how much family history is lost when older relatives die. Family health history is just as important.
The most significant thing we did to help them involved their home. While only living 30 minutes away, looking after mom and dad still proved a challenge as we needed to check on them regularly. The more illnesses they dealt with, the more complicated it became to keep an eye on them.
We were soon inspired by a pair of older friends who had a charming living-together-but-separate arrangement with their daughter. Their daughter and son-in-law lived on the main floor while the basement had an identical floor plan, garage, and separate entrance. That scenario sparked an idea with my wife and I. Initially, the suggestion to my parents of a similar arrangement was met with a definitive NO, followed by a common retort, “we don’t want to be a burden.”
Soon afterward, my mom broke her hip. Since she was the primary caretaker for my dad, who had suffered several strokes, the family tag-teamed looking after them both until mom got her strength and mobility back. That’s when I approached her and said, “Mom, I know you don’ want to be a burden, but, if I am honest, this experience was a burden. Imagine if y’all had been living next door or in an apartment within our home, how much easier it would have been to care for y’all.” The light bulb went on, and she finally relented to the idea of a joint living arrangement.
With the green light, my wife and I searched for an existing home that would provide us with the same set-up as our dear friends — joint but separate living arrangements. However, it proved nigh impossible to find the right set-up. We thought we had found the perfect situation once, but the seller backed out of the deal when his mother, who lived in his downstairs apartment, changed her mind about moving.
Later, we stumbled on a beautiful home that had potential. It had an unfinished basement with a separate entrance and a separate driveway and carport. We shared our vision with my parents, and they reluctantly agreed, struggling to visualize the final product. Once we bought the house, we immediately hired a contractor to finish off the downstairs apartment — we never used the word basement again. The finished model had a kitchen, living and dining area, two bedrooms, a Master Bath, a guest bath, and a washer and dryer area. A double door entrance from their covered parking area provided access large enough for a wheelchair if ever needed. And their living quarters were all on one level without a single step. Though an inside staircase provided access from our quarters to their living area, we purposed to enter through their outside door to reinforce their sense of privacy and separateness. They loved it.
A bonus occurred when we sold their home and moved them into their new apartment with us. We were able to help them downsize and sort through all their possessions, helping them decide what to keep, give, or throw away.
When my dad’s health took a more serious turn, he expressed his hopes that we would look after mom. It was more of a directive, “Don’t let her spend all my money at one time,” was his common quip, always with a smile on his face. A year later, when my dad passed away, all we had to grieve was his loss and not deal with all the hassles associated with what to do with mom in a home by herself.
Mom lived another four years. It was so helpful to have her right there with us. Being a caretaker is challenging, especially if you do not live with the parent. But with mom living so close, it provided a way to lovingly care for her while minimizing the burdens common to that stage of life. She appreciated having her “own place,” yet having us so nearby.
Mom and dad both appreciated having a sense of independence. They had the freedom to come and go as they pleased for most of their time with us. Frequent visits to Waffle House and Cracker Barrell were their delightful way of getting out of the house. The most challenging part of senior living is when driving is no longer an option. After his strokes, Dad had no business driving a car. He wisely never did, though he confessed to always keeping his car keys in his pocket, just in case of an emergency. Mom was a different story. After breaking her hip for the second time, her mobility and overall sense of balance were questionable. I had to take her keys away, and she was angry. “All I want to do is go to Publix for groceries, Belks for shopping, and Cracker Barrell for lunch! I’ll be careful.” Feeling guilty about putting her on such restrictions, I agreed to let her drive to Publix, and I would ride along. One trip was all it took — her driving skills (or lack thereof) scared the hell out of me. I no longer had any guilt. Fortunately, living with us in her in-house apartment allowed us to take her anywhere she needed to go, as well as spend time with her to minimize her sense of isolation and loneliness. She and my wife had a daily “morning coffee” routine that nurtured not only their relationship but also encouraged their spirits.
Caring for aging parents is not an easy task. My advice, to anyone who asks, is to have these hard-question discussions with their parents as soon as they can. Be patient. It may take a while before the parents recognize the needs they have or will have. No one likes to admit they need help.
Raising five children was a challenge, but “raising” aging parents…well, that’s a different ballgame altogether.