By Amy Cameron O’Rourke, author of The Fragile Years
Those of us with parents in their older, fragile years can find it challenging to adjust to the relationship changes that aging brings. Roles have evolved. Our parents are no longer our strong and vibrant caregivers. In fact, it is often they who need help, support and care.
This can bring all sorts of mixed emotions. It’s sad to see our once-independent parents lose capabilities and autonomy. Feelings of bitterness and resentment can arise when we begin realizing the impact of the new responsibilities our parents’ needs create. Yet at the same time, there’s the joy of seeing their grandchildren or great-grandchildren crawl into their laps, and the twinkle it brings to their eyes.
This may all feel very awkward, but what we often don’t recognize is that there’s a unique beauty in the new relationship our parents’ fragility creates.
That’s because as our parents become more fragile, they also become more vulnerable. Under the right circumstances, their vulnerability opens our hearts and theirs, leading to a closer, more multifaceted and intimate connection filled with tenderness and gratitude.
Rather than denying or resenting our older parents’ vulnerability, adult children are likely to find their own lives deeply enriched by doing two things: first, embracing this new relationship; second, creating the right circumstances for it to flourish. The following choices and actions will make this possible:
Decide intentionally to enter into this phase with your older parent – including paring down other commitments as needed. For some, this might mean cutting out time watching TV or going out to dinner with friends; for others, it might mean getting help with household chores in order to make space for visits with older parents. Where possible, it might even mean cutting back to part-time work. Whatever your choice, the intention will be to spend unhurried, unpressured time with your older parent.
Accept who they are today. Maybe Mom’s memory is not what it used to be, or Dad has developed some abrasive—and embarrassing—quirks. Just go with it. Adjust your expectations, and know that it’s a natural part of growing older.
Slow down and do things at their pace.
When your loved ones enter the fragile zone, they literally slow down. Their activity levels, their speech, the time it takes for them to dress, shower, and complete a meal—everything takes longer. Embrace it as part of life at this stage, and practice patience.
Do your own emotional work – so that unresolved issues don’t prevent you from stepping into this new context. Lingering resentments and anger can get in the way of your connection with your fragile parent—and can save many years of guilt and grief. In my experience, those who grieve the passing of a parent the most are the family members who never resolved their conflicts with the loved one.
Build a support system. For example, counseling to help manage the anxiety and stress that inevitably arise when parents are in their fragile years. Or a network of friends and neighbors who can help you with chores and practical matters so you can free up time to spend with your parent. Do what it takes to make sure you have the care and support you need in order to be there for your parent emotionally.
These steps will allow you to find the peace you need to appreciate this stage of your parent’s life and the new dynamic between you—and will leave room for a whole new, potentially beautiful relationship to flourish.
Amy Cameron O’Rourke is a nationally-known pioneer and advocate for senior care in the U.S. She has been a professional care manager for more than 40 years, with 20 of those years at the helm of The Cameron Group (now Arosa), which she founded, as well as O’Rourke & Associates in Orlando, Florida. Amy is also the author of The Fragile Years.