BY JERRY WITKOVSKY
As your parents age, balancing your role as adult children who worry or may even be caregivers can be challenging. While you want to ensure your aging parent’s health and well-being, you also can do so much to honor their independence and autonomy.
Here are five ways to circumvent ageist thinking and support older parents (like me) in thriving across our lifespan, whether we live independently or in assisted living.
- Encourage Friendships and Making New Friends
I have lived in an independent senior living community for the past year. Concerned about seeing isolation among my neighbors who were spending hours alone in their apartments, I worked with management to establish a “Caring Committee” to welcome new residents, initiate lunchtime discussions, and help people meet each other. I found it could be as intimidating to make new friends at 95 (as of my birthday last March!) as it was on my first day of high school. There are even cliques, that are hard to be a part of as a newcomer.
Maintaining social connections is critical for older adults’ mental and emotional health. Studies show that having a strong social network can reduce the risk of depression and cognitive decline in older adults by up to 60%. Take your parents seriously when they talk about the challenges of making new friends…including when they may like this one or don’t like that one. You don’t have to fix it. Your simply listening validates what your parents are feeling. And, if they feel it, it’s real for them.
Support your parents in making new friends. When you are taking your parents out or having them come to your house for dinner (or even if they live with you), ask them if they would like to bring a friend. That is a double good deed, for your parents and their new friend.
- Share memories and ask for stories
“What’s new?” may be a common ‘throwaway’ greeting among friends, but it can be a game-stopper for someone older, where “nothing” may be the truest answer. Ask for a story instead, which will be much more fun for you and your parents. You learn something new about someone you’ve known your entire life. It’s amazing for your parents, too, as stories trigger memories they didn’t even know were alive and well in the back of their brains! My friend Deanna asked her mom about her first job and suddenly her mom was 15 and back at the make-up counter at Stix where Mrs. Pasternak didn’t like her because she was taking all the customers. “I was just being friendly!” her mom said, wondering at the same time how she remembered her nemesis boss’ name. They both got a laugh out of that one.
“Ask for a story instead, which will be much more fun for you and your parents. You learn something new about someone you’ve known your entire life.”
Sharing stories can deepen your relationship and provide opportunities for your parents to feel heard and valued. Lifecycle events and “firsts” are fun stories to share across all three generations—you, your parents, and your kids (the grandkids). Take turns telling stories of first crushes, cars, embarrassing or proud moments, and more.
- Enable lifelong learning
Learning unleashes creativity, no matter your age. Encouraging your parents to continue learning and growing can enhance their quality of life. Engaging in activities or exercise, especially in assisted living communities, is essential for both physical and mental health. Suggest online classes, workshops, or lectures that align with your parents’ interests or passions. Invite them to teach you something. I surveyed my neighbors about their hobbies and past careers and set up sessions where we all taught and learned from each other, in person and for free.
Lifelong learning promotes cognitive health and can help ward off age-related decline. Older adults who continue to learn and challenge themselves are more likely to have better memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.
- Talk about the “B” word
What do you know about how your parents feel about aging? You likely don’t know unless you ask. I am always concerned about the “B” word…as in, am I a burden to my adult children? I decided to ask my daughter. She said “You and Mom taught me to love and care for each member of the family. I want to continue to do that. Share with me what you are going through.” While you don’t have to quote my daughter, feel free to borrow her words. That was a wonderful and reassuring answer to me.
Know that your parents appreciate all that you do. If they’re not calling, it could be because they don’t want to be a burden. Reassure them of your love, that they’re not a burden, and how much you enjoy the time spent together. Offer concrete ways you can help or show your appreciation. Using humor, expressing gratitude, or offering to do specific tasks can help alleviate any guilt or stress they may feel.
- Give space for your parents to talk about aging and dying
Finally, it’s essential to give your parents the space and support they need to talk about their aging and mortality. Active listening, empathy, and respect for their wishes can help ease any hesitation around these difficult conversations.
Don’t be afraid to ask your parents how they feel about aging, their end-of-life wishes, or any fears or concerns they may have. And, you never know how they will respond! When Deanna asked her dad, he did answer as she feared: “Are you trying to “off” me?” he asked. But he shared with his grandson, aka her son, that he was excited—it was the last adventure where no one knew what would happen. On the other hand, Deanna’s mom affirmed that she absolutely loved her life and was most concerned about writing a good obituary. I broached the topic with my family and surprised them with my desire to be buried in a canoe, after a lifelong love of camping (read that story here.)
What helping your parents may teach you about aging
America’s population of persons aged 90 and older has almost tripled since 1980, reaching 1.9 million in 2010. According to the 2020 Census (as reported in Thoughtco.com in 2021) it will continue to increase to more than 7.6 million over the next 40 years.
In the “olden days,” the stages of life were young, middle-aged, and old. Now there’s a new generation of people like me, the “older elders,” in our 80’s and beyond. As I like to say, “Don’t die until you are dead.” Meaning keep going. Keep doing. There’s no reason to stop following things you are passionate about because of a year on a calendar. And, for you, the older elders’ adult children, as you help your parents enjoy their later years, pay attention to what they are saying, what it can tell you, and how it can prepare you for your own aging process.