For some people it’s a cold hard truth, for some it’s a spiritual part of life, but the reality is the same for everyone: We all are born, we all age, and one day we will all die. This includes those people who cared for us when we were our most vulnerable, youngest selves — our parents.
For many, the fact that our parents will inevitably age is a really uncomfortable and challenging thought. As a coach, this is often a topic that can elicit a reaction of, “I don’t want to go there.”
Ready or not, you will have to go there one day. As we progress through our lives, our parents are progressing, too. As aging and life happens, one thing is certain: Things change, things can be different from what we expected, and things can be hard. But they can also be great if we grant ourselves some flexibility and move through this natural part of life with grace.
If you’re starting to experience the changing tides of life that come with aging parents, and have struggled to make heads or tails of your new reality, read on for 10 realities of having aging parents and some thoughts for navigating and managing the stresses of this time.
1. Roles will inevitably change.
This one is big and encompasses a lot so let's start here. Maybe you haven’t flexed into caretaker role, and maybe you never will. Still, the relationships and roles we have with parents evolve and change over time. This can be anything from who hosts Thanksgiving dinner, to who decides where the family vacation will be, to who comes on the family vacation.
2. Change may cause strains, especially in family dynamics.
Since our parents are part of our fundamental social systems — often the very first social system to which we’ve been exposed — when it changes, it can shake up our whole lives, and it can hurt. Change happens when children age, leave home for college, spend time abroad, form meaningful romantic relationships, have children, and parents become grandparents and so on. These changes can cause strain and confusion for everyone involved.
3. You might get less or different support — or be asked to give more.
As roles evolve, you may step into a caretaker role. You might lose one of your caretakers. This is often referred to as the “child becoming the parent.” But that’s not always the patter. Grandchildren, nieces and nephews and even new spouses can take on supportive roles that shift dynamics. And while it might not seem like it will immediately, it can have an impact on your support system. Tip: Be aware of your own support needs. If you relied heavily on your mother or father for support and, as they age you start to feel a void, you may need to consider reflecting on ways to cope and create new methods of support from different people. You may also need to figure out how to delegate tasks if you're becoming a primary caretaker for the first time while working.
4. If you have children, their relationships with your parents might be different from what you expected.
It’s really, really difficult to not have expectations, even fun, loose fantasies about what this or that might be like in the future. This is especially difficult with children. Not even venturing into the mother/child relationship, often we have great expectations for the relationships our children will have with their grandparents. As our parents age this can throw a wrench into that whole fantasy which can be immensely difficult. If you thought your dad would take your kids to baseball games and run around all summer like he did with you, or like his dad did with you, and then your father gets sick or simply has a different time aging, this can feel very sad, confusing and unfair.
5. If you don't have children, that might create countless variations of pressure or mixed feelings.
Pressure to have children is a widely discussed topic. It’s something that can evolve into very complicated feelings when a parent is aging. If you’ve been on the fence about having a child and your mother falls sick this can create often, self-inflicted, (sometimes external as well) pressure to make a certain decision and fast.
6. Memory loss and health complications may arise.
The vivid details that you recall might no longer be in your parents’ mind. The ability to go on a hike, walk around a theme park, or walk down the street might be challenging for an aging adult facing health issues. This is the physical part of aging that we often tell ourselves won't happen in our families especially if we come from reasonably healthy parents. But as the body ages things begin to breakdown, and even the most physically fit mother or father might not be able to maintain the same ability to hear or see the way they once did.
7. Money may get complicated.
Maybe you help pay for their mortgage, or maybe they used to help pay your rent but can't any more. You may feel stressed about how you'll manage your money. As parents age an often-overlooked area of tension is money. Depending on the family situation, social system and desires, this can create pressure for children to pick more up. Which can be difficult based on where children live, their own involvement and relationships, and more. Tip: Set some boundaries, especially if you have a partner and/or children. You may very much want to help your parents or feel pressured by other family members, btu you need to first understand what your own needs are and then what you can do.
8. People die.
The realest of them all. The people who have been there, or not been there, through all of our ups and downs, will at some point eventually die.
9. Leaving the workforce can cause mixed, unexpected and sometimes conflicting emotions.
Whether it's a personal choice or through job loss, as parents age they have different experiences with the end of their careers. Hardworking parents who modeled grit and perseverance can greatly anticipate retirement, only to be bored and restless. Parents who desperately want to retire might find it impossible for financial reasons. Tip: Stay in touch if possible with your parents as they go through a retirement transition. This can be a life experience that stirs up profound and often surprising emotions. The person who has looked forward to retirement for years might struggle with idle time, whereas the person who loved being always on the go might revel in quiet. You don’t need to solve anything for your parents but checking in during any change can have a positive effect.
10. All humans are fallible.
Remember, this happens to all of us. Be gentle with your parents, be gentle with yourself, and you might find this time to be one of the most fulfilling ones of your own life.
Jane Scudder is a certified leadership, personal development, and career growth coach; she helps individuals and groups get unstuck and achieve positive, sustainable change. In addition to one-on-one coaching she builds and leads original workshops and training programs, and consults with organizations of various sizes. Find out more at janescudder.com.