I am as disoriented as you are. I don’t recognize the topography of this place where my parents’ are slowly, almost imperceptibly, losing their way. I don’t know what to think when my father tells me the same story again and again, and sometimes again. I don’t know what to think as I watch their daily struggle to make financial ends meet, let alone the implications for the future. I don't know what to do with the sadness that wells up as I watch my mother's head quiver and bob without her permission. I am a foreigner in this land, and I suspect that just when it becomes familiar territory my journey will come to an end. I know none of us have the luxury of becoming experts—we only have so many parents.
Just like me, I know you have good intentions. I know you care. Deeply.
I also know this is not the time to indulge in fear or guilt; neither have a place in this journey. They offer no comfort or support and contain the power to skew our perceptions. If we allow them to remain, we run the risk of forgetting that what matters most to our parents during this time is of more importance than what matters to us. This is not our old age, it is theirs. Our turn will come.
For the sake of our parents, we must refuse to dwell in the land of denial; when we see our parents falter, we must acknowledge the truth and move forward.
Old age is no place for the faint of heart, and that applies equally to the participant and to the outsider. It takes courage to deal with the challenges of old age and patience to absorb the myriad changes. We must be willing to engage in the process, refusing to see old age as a foe to be conquered but rather as a training ground for increasing grace.
Instead of harboring fear, guilt, or denial, we must continue asking the most important question: what do my parents truly want? Not as in what-do-they-want-if-we-could-suddenly-acquire-a-magic-wand-or-wizard, but as in what do they want that is attainable? What continues to give them meaning in life? What things define who they are, and of those things, which ones can we continue to make happen? Perhaps it's independence, the chance to remain in control of their surroundings and decisions, and perhaps that independence runs in direct opposition to our own desire to keep them safe and protected. Whose desires should rank the highest? I say, unequivocally, it should be theirs. I say we grant them the dignity of supporting their aspirations for as long as humanly possible, reconciling ourselves to the associated risks and accepting them as an equitable cost.
Think of it as mindful independence: the place where both we and our parents are free from fear (and guilt and denial) and can get on with the business of living, in whatever ways truly matter. It is a mindset that echoes what our parents already taught us—to do unto others as we would have them do to us.
Remember, our own children are watching.