Love’s Way is a book that adult families will want to keep handy and return to often. Written by two family mediators, it provides readers with a map through the weeds that spring up along the path as parents age and roles reverse. Using real-life examples from years of working with families in this season of life, the authors illustrate common issues that can send a family into serious issues: unhealed sibling rivalries, parental favoritism, greed, secrecy, and fear of initiating necessary conversations. Readers will learn how to spot potential problems before they become crises and prevent or rectify them in their own families. They’ll learn what documents everyone needs, how to work with forgiveness, how to speak truth in love, and how to let go. Most importantly, readers (both adult children and their parents) will gain tools to create their own win-win solutions that keep parents safe and autonomous and family love intact.
Although Carolyn Miller Parr and Sig Cohen come from different faith traditions (Carolyn is Christian and Sig is Jewish), both are deeply committed. As a result, Love’s Way is both spiritual and practical. It overflows with advice readers can immediately begin to apply, with stories from the authors’ fifteen years as co-mediators, writers, speakers, and personal experiences as caregivers to their own aging parents. We hope you enjoy the following interview with them, which is not lacking in its fair share of thoughtful advice.
1. In the preface, it says that you two have found a “crying need” for this book, especially with the Baby Boomer generation. Can you explain why you think Baby Boomers need it so badly?
Parents now regularly live into their 90’s, so their Baby Boomer children (and even Boomers’ own kids in their 30’s and 40’s) can find themselves taking on aspects of caregiving for their parents. Even if an elder is intellectually sharp, they may need to stop driving. They may request help with their computer. When a parent becomes ill, or unable to climb steps, or falls, children realize the senior is no longer safe in their current home. Conflict arises between the adult kids’ concern for parents’ safety and the parents’ desire for autonomy.
2. How did you gather and choose the various anecdotes included in the book?
Both of us were caregivers to our own parents, Carolyn in her own home, Sig from long distance. Trial and error taught us what works and what doesn’t. We are also family mediators, and our clients’ very real conflicts provided true stories, though we changed identifying details. When the same issues surfaced in different families, we knew there was a common problem that needed attention.
3. What led you to choose the title Love’s Way?
Our agent said, “This is dark stuff. You need to write from a perspective of hope.” Families can prevent and heal conflict, and we want our title—and the whole book—to convey that.
4. Throughout the book, and especially in Chapters 3 and 4, you break down many of the dos and don’ts of serious communication between loved ones. Do you think that such advice, or even the book overall, could be helpful to people of all ages, even if they are not going through this particular situation?
Yes, you’ve hit on something important. The chapters on communication skills and recognizing negative assumptions are particularly helpful in many situations, including friendships, dating, and on the job. But also Chapter 5 on sibling rivalry (stressing apology and forgiveness), Chapter 7 (sections on vulnerability, compassion, gratitude, and courage), and material on transparency sprinkled throughout are valuable to people of any age.
5. Chapter 5 explores the difficulty of siblings caring for their parents. What advice would you give to an only child with aging parents?
If the parents start to need caregiving, you’ll be in a hard place. However, the truth is that most of the burden usually falls on one child, be it the eldest, the youngest, the one who lives closest to the parent, the one with the biggest home, or other reasons. Ask your parents to consider giving you their powers of attorney so you can more easily act on their behalf. Accompany them to medical appointments so you can know the truth of their health. Ask questions about their papers and names of advisers such as their lawyer and accountant. What insurance do they have and where are the policies? Ask them for a list of important websites and passwords, bank accounts, pension information. Help them to make a Plan B. If they agree, your job will be much easier.
6. The eponymous “Conversation” is referred to throughout the book. Can you explain what “The Conversation” is, and why it’s such a hard thing to tackle?
“The Conversation” is actually one or more serious sit-downs with parents about their plans surrounding their diminishment and dying. It may be hard for them and for you, thus easy to postpone until it’s too late. It involves exchanging information (see #5), as well as seeing what treatment they want (or not want) at life’s end, who they want with them, whether they want to die at home or elsewhere. Do they want their body to be cremated, embalmed, or donated to medicine? Where will they be buried, who should be notified, who will speak at their funeral…? Very, very tough questions. We give suggestions on how to talk about these things and we give websites to find more information. “The Conversation” may require more than one session.
7. What do you hope is people’s biggest takeaway from this book?
That parental aging and increasing vulnerability can be a blessed time for a family as well as a challenging one. It can be a time of healing, forgiveness, acceptance, insight, and inner growth. Compassion and love are not bound by age. Neither is joy.
8. What would each of you say people are most ignorant of the elderly season of life?
That older adults are adults, not children. They should be treated with dignity. They have rich inner lives and deep wisdom to share. Their wishes should be respected, even though others may think they know better, unless the elder is incapacitated to the point of being a danger to themselves or others.
9. Sig, in Chapter 1, you mention how aging in the 21st century is different from past generations. Could you expand upon why that is? Do these differences play a role in the advice you give in the book?
Much has to do with technology. Our vastly increased access to information has enabled us to be far better informed about local and world events, and resources to draw on whenever we’re looking for information that we previously couldn’t find. Health information like WebMD. Or which OTC or Rx medicines are most effective for what ails us. Or, if a family is looking for an assisted living residence or a skilled nursing home. Besides the facility’s website, people check Yelp. We’ll refer clients to the Web for any manner of information. For better or worse, adult kids don’t need other people—such as parents—to inform us about matters that are readily available on line.
Another example: transportation: from Uber to GPS to when the next bus will arrive. In effect, we’re more self-sufficient. The downside, of course, is we are more isolated than in previous generations, especially with respect person-to-person contact. We’ve gained more data but lost more contact. Not an intentional trade-off, but one that has taken over our lives.
10. Carolyn, in Chapter 8, in which you discuss “letting go,” you refer to yourself as a “creature of your culture.” How does our culture impact Americans’ ability to age? Can someone’s culture make death easier/harder?
In America we tend to elevate youth, physical fitness, sexual attractiveness, and achievement (including social status and wealth). Aging impacts negatively on all of these, except perhaps for past achievement. An “up-scale” retirement center may cost more than $100,000 a year, quickly depleting a middle-class person’s wealth. Our emphasis on individualism makes us hesitate to ask for or accept help, even from family. Aging is more respected in parts of the world where family and community are more highly valued.
11. How has writing this book shaped your view of the aging process in your own life?
It has inspired us to nurture our relationships with our own children and siblings more. It has reminded us to notice the joys of the present moment. We’re trying to practice holding our blessings lightly instead of clinging. We’re more keenly aware of the fragility of life, and grateful for every day.
Carolyn Miller Parr is a retired judge, mediator, writer, and public speaker. She graduated from Stetson University (BA), Vanderbilt (MA English), and Georgetown Law (JD). Since 2002, Judge Parr has practiced peacemaking through her mediation practice Beyond Dispute and Tough Conversations with Sig Cohen.
Sig Cohen is a retired Foreign Service officer, fundraiser, and community organizer, and now serves as a mediator. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (BS) and the University of Chicago (MA in International Relations).