Surviving Family Tension and Helping Aging Parents: The Guide You Need

By Carrie Martin, Inventory Specialist

Boomers and aging parents: help is one book away!

Having just come through the holidays, some of us are ready to put out a help wanted ad: “Looking for life coach to come alongside and help me navigate my family dynamics between November 27, 2019, and January 2, 2020.” That five-week time frame is the one season that can make the most brilliant scientist feel inept, bring the most competent CEO to her knees, confound the most gifted therapist, and cause the weariest factory worker to long for his assembly line. Our families both bless and undo us over the holidays, it is true.

What happens when a holiday season becomes daily life as a family works together to care for perhaps the one thing they still have in common: aging parents? How will you respond when you are thrust back into a way of life you thought you had left behind? We see it in the movies: New York City fashion tycoon returns to childhood Iowa farm to help with a family health crisis. It doesn’t take long for her to realize all her artistic talents and NY cache mean very little to her weary relatives and even less to the farm animals under their care. Family skeletons quickly make their way out of every closet and old grudges between siblings bubble to the surface. While these tensions make for a great movie, it’s scary when it suddenly becomes your life, and the life of your family. Enter stage left your life coaches, Carolyn Miller Parr and Sig Cohen with their new book Love’s Way: Living Peacefully with your Family as your Parents Age.

Carolyn and Sig blend their legal and mediation expertise with their personal caregiving experience in a most helpful manner, including plenty of stories alongside a healthy dose of hard data. There is plenty here for both right and left brain types. The data offers confidence; the stories offer hope. In addition you will find a number of pithy quotes from various religious traditions and disciplines that offer much food for thought. Try this one on for size:

“When we have no peace, it is because we’ve forgotten
we belong to one another.”
–Mother Theresa

Or this one:

“Safety is what we want for those we love.
Autonomy is what we want for ourselves.”
–Dr. Atul Gawande

For those of us who have already put some things in place for our aging parents, the book serves as an encouragement that we are indeed moving in the right direction. For those who have not, it’s both a push and a pathway towards a journey that could save your family much heartbreak down the road.

Respecting Our Parents

It’s easy to talk about respecting our elders as they age, but it’s harder to know what respect looks like in this context. I love the authors’ discussion of the often conflicting values of safety versus autonomy.

Intergenerational conflicts arise when families need to decide whether elderly parents should stop driving, where and with whom they should live, and what kinds of medical treatment they should receive. These decisions become more crucial as a parent nears the end of life. Often parents prefer autonomy to safety, while their adult children opt for the opposite. As mediators, we ask ourselves: How can we help these adult families find solutions that recognize the value of both?

Aging…presents opportunities for development and growth, just like other life stages such as adolescence or young adulthood. In How to Say It to Seniors, David Solie notes that there are two principal developmental tasks for seniors: (1) creating a legacy that positively embeds us in the memories of our loved ones, and (2) learning to accept and live with our losses.

As long as we are alive, we have inner work to do. “Respect acknowledges the courage and energy required to perform this ‘inner work’ around the endless parade of losses and indignities that happen to us as we age.”

Finally, respect allows another person to have the dignity of choice as long as is absolutely possible. “As long as they remain competent, respect your parents’ right to control their own destiny, even if you disagree with their decision.” The most practical way to ensure that your parents’ wishes ARE respected as they age and/or approach end of life is to assist them in drafting three powerful documents (1) A will (2) a Power of Attorney and (3) a health directive. Our wise guides encourage us that there are a myriad of resources at our disposal to help us “scale the twin peaks of paperwork and planning.” Phew.

Communication with Siblings

Love’s Way does an excellent job reviewing basic communication skills and how they apply to the family caregiving context, especially that pesky “listening” part. Carolyn and Sig cover everything from how to start “the conversation” with your parents and siblings, manage expectations, and recognize assumptions that muck up relationships. They encourage us to examine the deeper emotions that operate behind anger, in ourselves and in our family members, and emphasize the critical nature of transparency throughout all phases of the elder care process. This was a necessary reminder for me as an only daughter with primary responsibility for my parents at present. It is often easier to follow the Nike method and “just do it” whatever “it” may be; however, an unintended consequence is that we cut ourselves off from the beautiful gift of collaboration with our family members. The majority of siblings truly want to pitch in but sometimes they just don’t know how to “find the on ramp.” Transparency about what is happening and what is needed helps everyone.

In the end, it’s all about finding a “shared world” with your siblings. The goal is not to fix or ignore legitimate differences and past grievances but purposefully set them aside in order to come together for this one excellent and worthy task: caring for Mom and Dad. Love’s Way: Living Peacefully with your Family as your Parents Age can help you find your way to that very valuable common ground.

Carrie Martin lives in the seaside town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and serves as an Inventory Specialist at Hendrickson Publishers. She is an active member of her church, loves playing music and singing hymns, and will definitely beat you in a one-on-one game of basketball.

For more information about Love’s Way, visit our website, check out this Q&A with Carolyn Parr and Sig Cohen, or read this excerpt from the book!

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