In this excerpt of the new book It’s Between You and Me, author Ali Davidson helps the generations take the first step toward understanding and accepting the changes that occur as we get older. The book details how to have the hardest conversation of your life and why you need to discuss eldercare with your parents before they need it.
I thought about starting out by giving you statistics about our aging population, the data associated with diseases related to seniors, housing issues, cost of aging, etc., and
then decided against it. All of that is meaningful if you are trying to write a report, a proposal or even a new law. But all we are trying to do here is help each of you understand the issues facing each of us as we live longer than ever before.
Some of the issues are obvious, such as higher medical costs and the lack of funds for Medicare and Social Security. However, the issues we are going to concentrate on are the ones we deal with everyday. These issues are the ones that break the bank, test relationships and wound the soul. They are the concerns of every senior and their adult children. The topics range across the spectrum including:
- Where to live?
- When or if to move?
- When to stop driving?
- When to stop paying your own bills?
- When to have help in the home?
- And how much money is there to pay for it all?
It is hoped that as you read this today you are in your early 70s, are still physically active and mentally aware. Unlike the grandparents of the past who, by this age, were living with their sons or daughters, sitting on the porch in a rocker watching the grandchildren play on the lawn, today’s grandma and grandpa are still traveling around the world, golﬁng on Saturdays, dancing at the senior center on Thursday night, and volunteering at the local food kitchen. These grandparents are not babysitting their grandchildren or sitting around watching TV. These seniors are the “young old.” Still vital, still strong, still making their own decisions, still in control of their lives. And you, adult child, in your 40s or 50s, have yet to imagine what your parents’ old age will look like. The day will come when they will be “old-old” and the parent you’ve known, the person who took care of you, the one who made all the decisions, is no longer present. However just as our children seemed to grow up overnight from diapers to bikinis, we too will one day wake up and ﬁnd that mom or dad has become “suddenly senior.” Roles will reverse and you will be making decisions for your parents the way they once did for you.
The hardest part is that stage in between. The point at which mom is still resisting assistance because she is unaware of, or in denial of, her deﬁcits, and the child is happy to accept that assessment. This is the crucial time, the time just before the crisis; the time when all concerned are wearing the rosy glasses or even the blinders. This period can go on for quite a while so that even the anomalies become the norm. And that is what makes it so dangerous. Everyone is faking it and no one wants to talk about the elephant in the room. So nothing is addressed until a hip is broken, the electricity gets shut off, an overdose occurs or the kitchen is burning! Then everyone jumps into action. The problem is what action? Who is making the decisions? How does the adult child know what dad would have wanted once this has happened? We are all living longer and aging is a natural process. It is a developmental stage of life, no different than the ones we experience as we move from toddler to teen. Growing old doesn’t have to mean we are falling apart. It doesn’t mean that seniors are frail and will all end up living in nursing homes. The facts show that at any given time only ﬁve percent of the senior population is living in nursing homes. So many people think seniors are unhappy. Yet studies show that this is not the case. Not all seniors get dementia; therefore growing old doesn’t mean we can no longer make decisions. Our seniors have great inﬂuence in the world and in their own backyard. Many continue to work well into their 70s. My grandmother was vital, mobile and still the boss until the week before she died. It is a mistake to think that as our seniors age they will all experience illness, dementia and feebleness for many years before they leave this planet. All seniors are not alike. They are as different in their later years as they were in their younger days. The key to a successful aging process is having a plan and dealing with things appropriately so that we can minimize the effect on the quality of our lives.
We start by understanding the basics of what all seniors want. If we use this as a guideline to creating our plan we ensure that our parents’ needs and wants are honored. Here’s what we know about the desires seniors express:
- Almost all seniors want to live out their lives in the home they have known and loved.
- Seniors want to maintain their autonomy as long as possible.
- One of their greatest fears is losing the ability to drive and, thus, their independence.
- All seniors want to avoid being a burden on their families.
- They want to be in control of their lives and make their own decisions.
- Most do not fear death as much as they fear becoming dependent on others.
- They all resist change; they want continuity.
- They all want to be treated with dignity and as adults regardless of how much help they need from others.
- They have a strong need to feel connected.
Here’s what we know about the desires adult children express:
- They want their parents to be safe and happy.
- They want their parents to be active and social for as long as possible.
- They want their parents to be healthy and independent
In addition, I have found that almost all adult children:
- Rarely talk to their parents about aging and are caught by surprise when something happens
- Have very little knowledge of senior issues
- Are either working full time or retired and traveling, leaving them too busy to assist their parents full time
- Have a hard time admitting that mom and dad are aging
- Have no idea how much their parents have in savings to pay for their care if they should need it
As you read this, it is likely that you can already see the problem. No one is prepared for the onset of the issues they may face in the future. Part of making a plan together is learning about what may come and then communicating with each other today, before things change. It is much easier to share concerns and fears today while choosing realistically how you want things to be handled later. As you do this, not only will you enhance your relationships, but you also ensure that everyone’s desires and criteria are met. The culture we live in today has caused families to spread all over the world. Families no longer grow up in towns and remain there till they die. Statistics show that people change jobs every 2.5 years and homes every 5 years. As a result, adult children may ﬁnd themselves across the country from their parents when parents begin experiencing their aging challenges. The adult children have to depend on their parents to reveal the truth about their health and living situation, even though most seniors don’t perceive themselves as old, regardless of their age.
I remember walking with my grandmother through the assisted living facility. She didn’t want to live there because as she said, “I don’t want to be around all these old people.” She was 89 at the time. Just as no one can pinpoint the day they had to start wearing reading glasses, the gradual changes that occur as we age are hard to record, let alone relate to others. Of course, this creates a false sense of security for adult children who are relying on their parents to be good historians. If dementia enters the equation, you can understand why it is usually not until a crisis occurs that most long-distance adult children ﬁnally get a clear picture of their parents’ situation.
I have found that even when adult children live within 10 miles of their parents the same perceptions seem to be present. This is probably due to the nature of our gradual aging process. Remember how, when raising your kids, you didn’t notice how tall they’d grown, or how much more mature they were, until someone else (who hadn’t seen them for a while) pointed it out to you? It is because our awareness of small changes is hindered by our current perceptions. I remember not realizing that my kids had grown three inches until I went to buy their school clothes and noticed they had gone up in sizes. Little changes such as a slower gait, less activity, a little forgetfulness, or less appetite, are harder to gauge in short visits. As a senior, before you can make decisions about your future, it is best to get to know your routine today. In other words, one of the ways that an adult child will be able to accurately ascertain those small changes as they occur will be to compare their parents’ lifestyle, physical abilities, and cognitive abilities today. In the ﬁrst part of the guidebook there will be a list of questions to help you determine where you are, who you are, and how you are coping in your life currently. It is a very important part of this process, and it is also a chance to honestly share how well you, the parent, are doing.
There are many factors that will inﬂuence the aging process. These include chronic health issues such as arthritis and diabetes, social interaction and activities, physical mobility, and cognitive capabilities. Any parent who has limitations in these areas will greatly beneﬁt with being very speciﬁc about how they currently manage these issues. While coping mechanisms can be effective and are often used by seniors, it is important that the adult child know them for what they are. Realizing deﬁciencies are compensated for through coping mechanisms helps both the parent and adult child recognize when those mechanisms are no longer working.
As a former owner of an in-home care agency, Ali Davidson worked with seniors and their families for 9 years. During that time she helped them negotiate the aging process with dignity and compassion. She developed training programs for her employees that ensured quality care for her clients and a better understanding of the needs of seniors. She is a certified Neuro-Linguistic-Programming Master Practitioner and has counseled individuals, couples and families through her private practice, focusing on communication, relationship, and healing old wounds. As a Life Coach for the past 2 years she has helped clients in both their personal and professional lives to reconnect to their passion, reach their goals and live to their fullest potential.