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As My Parents Age
Reflections on Life, Love, and Change
By Cynthia Ruchti
Worthy Publishing GroupCopyright © 2017 Cynthia Ruchti
All rights reserved.
When I Notice the First Signs
Despite our valiant efforts, we cannot stop the aging process. But God never says, "Whoa. I did not see that coming."
Although she might have disagreed, fashion sense ranked lower on the list of my mom's strengths and skill sets than my siblings and I would have liked. The good news is that no one could accuse her of trying to dress two decades younger than her age.
But the day she showed up at an event wearing avocado-green slacks with a kelly-green sweater, my sisters and I looked at each other as if we could hear the unspoken words that flew between us: "And ... it begins."
But it wasn't the beginning at all.
The aging process started when my grandmother pushed my mom out into the world. One minute old. Two weeks old. Four years old. Forty years old. The process continued for her until she drew her final breath of earth air at age eighty-three. She'd lived twenty-four years past the first of many heart attacks. She'd survived nine years of congestive heart failure, four years in a home hospice program, and nine months of "any minute now" in a hospice-residence facility.
For a long time after Mom died, the phone beside my bed unnerved me. I no longer had reason to lie awake listening for its ring in the night. No one would ever call to tell me that my mom needed me or she'd taken a turn for the worse. She was gone.
For her, the "as my parents age" phase lasted much longer than our family members imagined possible. It began as my mom uttered her first newborn cry — as it does for all of us — then intensified in her sixties, seventies, and eighties as her health grew progressively worse, and finally came to a quiet halt on a Monday afternoon seven years ago when God said, "Dorothy, that's quite enough. Come home."
Some say aging signals death's approach the way the first stray snowflake warns of winter's impending arrival. Others say aging signals a life well-lived. Or that aging is simply a new stage of living — an advanced stage of the human soul's life cycle.
Then why the flood of antiaging serums, pills, supplements, and creams? Why the frenzy to at least slow or mask the aging process if we can't stop it?
Most of us cope far better with the signs that we're aging than we do with the telltale signs that our parents are. In childhood, every new phase is a sign of growth and development, of new adventures and skills, newly realized potential and accomplishment. Progression in an elderly person usually means loss, decline, retired skills — relinquishing rather than attaining.
Our relationship with an aging parent changes, and not always for the better. The aging process slaps us in the face with its rude reminder that time with our beloved parent is fleeting. It has an end point. No matter when that date arrives, it will seem too soon.
Nothing we face — emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially, mentally — surprises God. Not even aging. It's a season He's watched His children traverse since Adam and Eve noticed their first wrinkles, since Eve plucked her first gray hair, noticed her skin was getting crepey and muttered, "'Eat the fruit,' the serpent said. 'What could happen?'"
American culture focuses on the negatives of aging. But many of the elderly — similar to the wild, stunning colors of autumn leaves prior to winter's approach — are taking advantage of the accompanying benefits. They're serving others, inventing new ministries, spending time with their grandchildren, or helping their middle-aged children through the "middles."
They travel — canes and walkers notwithstanding — to places that had been on their wish lists for too long. They're socializing, entertaining others, and choosing the pace at which they live rather than being forced into an unnatural pace by a job or other responsibilities.
The emotionally healthiest among them lace their days with laughter and friendships, mending fences that have served no real purpose. They convert from two-wheeled to three-wheeled motorcycles so they can still participate in their favorite pastimes. They take cooking classes. They learn languages they may never be called upon to use, simply for the joy of expanding their knowledge. In some cases, they're leaving grown children in the dust with their voracious appetites for risk-taking and attempting new things.
Part of the season when we watch our parents age may be hemmed in awe. We discover what really matters to our parents when the "have-tos" are stripped away. We reconnect with them on a new level — adult to adult — and step into a not-altogether-unpleasant role of meeting their needs in ways that weren't possible or necessary before. We enjoy shared goals and serve our communities side by side.
Until ill health or memory issues or the natural effects of advanced aging threaten to disturb that scene.
Solomon wrote poetically and soberly of that season in Ecclesiastes 12:1–7 (AMP):
Remember [thoughtfully] also your Creator in the days of your youth [for you are not your own, but His], before the evil days come or the years draw near when you will say [of physical pleasures], "I have no enjoyment and delight in them"; before the sun and the light, and the moon and the stars are darkened [by impaired vision], and the clouds [of depression] return after the rain [of tears]; in the day when the keepers of the house (hands, arms) tremble, and the strong men (feet, knees) bow themselves, and the grinders (molar teeth) cease because they are few, and those (eyes) who look through the windows grow dim; when the doors (lips) are shut in the streets and the sound of the grinding [of the teeth] is low, and one rises at the sound of a bird and the crowing of a rooster, and all the daughters of music (voice, ears) sing softly. Furthermore, they are afraid of a high place and of dangers on the road; the almond tree (hair) blossoms [white], and the grasshopper (a little thing) is a burden, and the caperberry (desire, appetite) fails. For man goes to his eternal home and the mourners go about the streets and market places. Earnestly remember your Creator before the silver cord [of life] is broken, or the golden bowl is crushed, or the pitcher at the fountain is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed; then the dust [out of which God made man's body] will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.
Aging. An inescapable reality, barring early death. Watching our parents age — also inescapable.
But we draw great fortifying breaths of comfort from knowing that God is not silent on the subject. He intends to accompany us on the journey, to catch us when we stumble, and to point out the can't-miss beauty along the way.
It cost him
But my father asked me
To climb the ladder
He's climbed all his life
To free the rain gutters
Of decaying leaves
And in that moment
I knew he would need me now
And that I had two choices
I could make a big deal
About the sacrifice of my time
Or I could make every step
Up that ladder
An expression of my love
I chose love.
When It All Comes Down to What Matters Most
How naively the toddler says, "I can't wait to be older."
My mother was lucid for all of her eighty-three years. But near the end of her life, heavy-duty pain medication coupled with her limping heart brought moments of distress that exacerbated her anxiety and lifelong selective impatience. During her years as a nurse, she'd built a reputation for endless patience with her patients. We siblings mused that she must have spent her reserves of the grace, which left little of it for things like slow-moving trains, sluggish Internet connections, and God's timetable for her final breath.
Dependent upon those of us who lived close to her after Dad's premature death at sixty-four — right on time in God's eyes, no doubt, but premature to our way of thinking — Mom let the impatient side of herself slip out in observations about how often we should call or visit, how soon to flip on our turn signal when driving her to or from a doctor's appointment, and how inconvenient it was that the server at the Asian restaurant spoke her native language clearly, but only halting English.
Pain can intensify the smallest character quirk or flaw. We see it happening when we're down with the flu. Why would we be surprised to see it magnified when the pain is a deep emotional wound or the crushing pain that sometimes accompanies end-of-life illnesses for an aging parent?
As my mom neared her final days, she grew agitated about her Bible. When I walked into her room at the hospice residence facility one afternoon, her eyes showed her frustration: "Need to read it. I can't read it. Help me." She repeated, "Seventy-one. Seventy-one. Seventy-one."
My impulse was to remind her she'd passed seventy-one a dozen years earlier but then realized she was talking about a chapter or a verse or both. "What book of the Bible, Mom? I'll find it for you."
"Is it ninety-one? Ninety-one," she said, wringing scary-thin hands that had once been plump and strong.
I'd seen this dramatic level of agitation a few times since she'd grown too weak to hold a hairbrush or dress herself. It threatened my own beating heart's rhythm. My precious mother, a rock of stability with a little stubborn mixed in, helpless and frightened and desperate for something she couldn't define.
"In the Psalms, Mom?"
I started with Psalm 91, skimming first, noting truths that would comfort both of us in the room. Lines like, "Living in the Most High's shelter, camping in the Almighty's shade, I say to the Lord, 'You are my refuge, my stronghold! You are my God — the one I trust'" (Psalm 91:1–2 CEB) and "God will protect you with his pinions; you'll find refuge under his wings. His faithfulness is a protective shield" (verse 4). And "Don't be afraid of terrors at night, arrows that fly in daylight, or sickness that prowls in the dark, destruction that ravages at noontime" (verses 5–6).
She shook her head as violently as her almost-nonexistent energy would allow. "No, no, no."
What had I missed? Why wasn't her soul appeased by these ancient yet ever-new promises? I flipped back a few pages to Psalm 71, leaving the 91 her thoughts had eventually landed on.
I held her hand as I read the first few verses. They sounded a lot like a repeat of God's promises to those in a place of deep need —"Be my rock of refuge where I can always escape," (Psalm 71:3 CEB). Then my eyes caught up with her heart when I read verse nine: "Don't cast me off in old age. Don't abandon me when my strength is used up!" The words on the page blurred as I continued reading to the one who had first read stories to me.
But me? I will hope. Always. ... Lord, I will help others remember nothing but your righteous deeds. You've taught me since my youth, God, and I'm still proclaiming your wondrous deeds! So, even in my old age with gray hair, don't abandon me, God! Not until I tell generations about your mighty arm, tell all who are yet to come about your strength, and about your ultimate righteousness, God. ... You, who have shown me many troubles and calamities, will revive me once more (Psalm 71:14, 16–20CEB).
The tension abated. My mom's soul — and mine — had cried out for reassurance that the valley of the shadow did not stretch into eternity. It had an end point. And in the meantime, the in-between time? She and I would cling to the Word that replaced agitation and impatience with peace.
Monica says, "I'm blessed because at almost fifty-eight years old, I still have both of my parents and they are able to remain at home. It is difficult to watch them slow down and [experience] all the other things that go with aging. But the most difficult thing is knowing I won't always have them in this life. That, someday, their chairs at the kitchen table will be empty."
Fodder for still-life artists, photographers, and book-cover designers. But for those with aging parents, an empty chair represents a stark relationship end point. Navigating toward that end point — whether it is too near or far in the distance — can't help but nudge us toward life's large and looming questions. Among them is this: "As my parents age, what matters most?"
How would you answer that? Does your thought follow one of these paths?
? It's time to iron out that wrinkle in our relationship. It's not worth holding on to that grudge in light of what lies ahead.
? We need to have the hard talks. Who will serve as their power of attorney or financial power of attorney? Are their wills up-to-date so their wishes will be clearly known? Do they have living wills for medical intervention? What are their thoughts now compared to when they were my age?
? How will my daily routine need to change to accommodate my parents' care?
? Are they spiritually and emotionally ready for that eventual end point? Am I?
Take a few moments now — the elusive "later" grows more elusive as time passes — to consider how you and your parents would answer the question, "At this season of life, what matters most to us as individuals and as a family?" And then spend another moment considering and praying over this verse, underlined in the pages of my mother's Bible: "Don't cast me off in old age. Don't abandon me when my strength is used up!" Psalm 71:9 (CEB).
Great God of comfort,
Inventor of faithfulness,
You who breathed our first breath for us
And will kiss away the last,
With old truths
Lit from within
By Your Spirit
As we embark on a journey
We didn't know we'd signed up for —
Watching our parents grow older.
And older. Or not.
In the name of Jesus,
Hope of all hopes,
When They're Miles and Miles Away
The distance between a caring child and an aging parent is infinitely farther than the map claims.
It's hard but good watching our children grow up; kids are supposed to grow up and move away. It can be hard, hard, hard watching our parents age. The inevitable end result is loss. And in the middle is a cluster of mini-losses. Change brought about by aging can be as challenging to witness as it is to experience.
"My father lay in the hospital across the country from me when he was sixty-four," my friend Tina noted. "His medical issues would have been beyond my ability to help even if I had been there. But trying to talk to him on the hospital phone as he lay dying? What a helpless feeling."
The following dialogue snippet may strike too close to home for you.
"Dad, you say 'I'm fine' every time I ask how you're doing. 'I'm fine.' I want to know the truth. How fine are you?"
"Would it matter how I answered? You live too far away to do anything about it."
Too many adult children of aging parents have had similar conversations. Distance from an aging or ill mother or father is considered one of the most potent sources of frustration during this period of life, according to those who have walked that path.
? I can't be there to hug her, even if there's nothing I can do to help ease her pain.
? Logically, I know it's my job or my spouse's job or my parents' choice that keeps this distance of miles between us. But that doesn't prevent guilt from disturbing the peace.
? I don't know how much he's hiding from me because he doesn't want me to worry. Ironically, that's the source of my greatest level of worry.
? Seeing my parents so infrequently makes it shocking to notice the decline. How did that happen? When? Why wasn't I there? As if I could have prevented them from aging.
? I don't want a call from the hospital or the funeral home to be the first clue I have about how "not fine" Dad was all this time.
Charity talked to her mother every Thursday evening on the phone. Her mother's voice sounded subdued, but nothing obvious warned that trouble brewed. One holiday visit, Charity noticed her mom's "immaculate" apartment no longer qualified for that status. Mail from weeks earlier lay unopened in a basket on the counter. Several scorched pans showed evidence that burners had been left on too long — or forgotten entirely. But her mom insisted she was doing okay and had been unusually busy preparing for their visit.
Before they said uneasy good-byes and prepared to make the cross-country trip at the end of the holiday weekend, Charity and her husband set up the necessary technology so she and her mom could share video calls. They left a laminated recipe card of instructions for the older woman to follow.
The visual connection helped for a few weeks. Then Charity's mom claimed it was "too much fuss," and refused to communicate any way other than by phone.
"The distance felt as if it had grown from two thousand miles to twenty thousand," Charity said. "I knew there were things she didn't want me to see on the video. I assumed she was ashamed that she'd let the house go, even though Ben and I insisted we'd find a way to pay for a cleaning lady if it would help her. In the end, it was far more than that. When my next visit was at the urging of her doctor, I found her covered in deep purple bruises — a combination of poor nutrition, prescription misuse, and a series of falls she hadn't reported. If I had known...."
Excerpted from As My Parents Age by Cynthia Ruchti. Copyright © 2017 Cynthia Ruchti. Excerpted by permission of Worthy Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. When I Notice the First Signs,
2. When It All Comes Down to What Matters Most,
3. When They're Miles and Miles Away,
4. When We Mourn and Embrace the Role Reversal,
5. When My Children Need Me Too,
6. When My Parents Won't Accept Help,
7. When I'm Tempted to Help Too Much,
8. When My Siblings Disagree on Our Parents' Care,
9. When My Parents Won't Have the Hard Conversations,
10. When They Can't Let Old Hurts Go,
11. When I Can't Let Old Hurts Go,
12. When All We Can Do Is Laugh,
13. When My Parent Is in Denial,
14. When My Parent's Strongest Gift Is Stubbornness,
15. When My Parents Make Unwise Decisions,
16. When My Gratitude Gets Lost in Life's Wrinkles,
17. When I Don't Know What to Pray,
18. When My Parent's Mind Is Gone,
19. When I Think I Can't Make an Impact,
20. When My Parent Loses Who I Am,
21. When They Think Life No Longer Has Meaning,
22. When Their Aging Changes Me,
23. When It's Just Plain Hard,
24. When I Don't Know What to Say,
25. When Time Is All They Want from Me,
26. When Guilt Taints Our Relationship,
27. When My Parents' Needs Cost Me,
28. When I Feel as if the Battle Is Mine Alone,
29. When I Can't Keep My Promise to My Parents,
30. When I Don't Recognize or Like Who My Parent Has Become,
31. When I Become the Story-Keeper,
32. When Visiting Deepens My Pain ... and My Understanding,
33. When No One Understands or Knows How to Help,
34. When My Efforts Seem So Small,
35. When the End Is Too Near,
36. When I'm Already Grieving,
37. When They Die Too Young,
38. When My Skills and Love Are No Longer Enough,
39. When the Moment Comes to Say Good-bye,
40. When I Shift to Life without My Parents,