Differences Between An Aging Parent and A Dying Parent: 5 Steps to The Talk

Because the first thing to know is they’re not the same. Your parent may be up in years, that is an aging parent (And really aren’t we all that?). A dying parent is one who has been given that prognosis of limited time. It’s important to differentiate because talking to an aging parent is not the same as talking to a dying parent when it comes to discussing wishes and, later life, and end of life desires. The similarity is that the talks are always done with caring and compassion and usually (but not always), with love.

This post is about talking with an aging parent– one who is perhaps showing signs of slowing down but is not yet ill.

  1. Open a dialogue now. This is the time to do it, while your parent is well and reasonably happy, with some clarity of mind. If you haven’t had a closeness or intimacy with your parent up to this point in your life, don’t give up. While you both have breath, you both have opportunity for personal growth. You can begin by talking about little things that matter to you. Maybe increase the frequency of your phone calls if your relationship to this point is mostly via the phone. If you do visit, perhaps do so a bit more. Putting more time into the relationship is a good way to change the nature of it. All talks come easier with enhanced closeness.
  2. Speaking of time, plan wisely. If you want to have good talks, pick a good time. If you know your dad watches golf on Sunday and his attention is glued to the TV, don’t choose then to open your heart. You may want to go out somewhere where you can truly connect. Coffee shops are perfect venues for intimacy. Bars? Maybe not so much but if it works for you… . It doesn’t matter where you are, anyplace can lend itself to warm connections. Even your own backyard if you like.IMG_0914
  3. Share  your own life. If you want to talk about writing a will, for example, tell your parent how you handled writing yours. This is a time for you to be your parent’s adult child, a partner of sorts, someone speaking to a contemporary. Don’t condescend, don’t take the role of dependent child. Talk to your parent as you’d talk to a friend you respect.
  4. Be sure to tell your parent why you are broaching any sensitive subject. You want to protect his or her future and to make sure he or she is able to live comfortably as long as possible.
  5. Don’t jump in head first to the “big” talks about death and dying. Your aging parent isn’t necessarily dying anytime soon. The goal here is to find out what he or she wants going forward. The fact is that with aging come some very natural changes in the body’s ability to function. What you want is to find out how your parent wants to live as those changes happen. Just express that and most importantly, listen.

Do Great Expectations = Great Disappointment in Families?

Recently a friend and I were talking about our lives in terms of what we thought they’d be like when we were younger and what our lives turned out to be. We discussed whether life had for the most part exceeded or failed to meet our expectations. We’re both pretty happy people and we came to an interesting realization. Neither of us had much in the way of expectations when we were younger and really don’t today either. As a result, we’re both pretty happy with the way things are going.

“Low expectations,” my friend exclaimed, “that’s the key to happiness.” We laughed but in considering it later, I realized he may be on to something. Especially when it comes to family. We all have expectations about family relationships, I think. We’re pretty much wired that way from the time we are young. We expect our parents to love us and to take care of us when we are children. We expect our siblings to love us and be our playmates when we’re kids together. Then we take those expectations into adulthood and maybe that’s where we go wrong. If we have high hopes and great expectations and our family members don’t meet our lofty goals, we come crashing down amidst the disappointment. From there the disappointment could lead to anger, to adult sibling rivalry, to fighting for parental approval and any hope for a healthy adult sibling relationship falls apart.

Perhaps the key to happiness here is to lower our expectations of family. Maybe we have to treat family members more like we treat our friends. With our friends we don’t just expect them to treat us fairly and with respect. We understand our friends owe us nothing unless we earn it. We accept the fact that good friendships are the product of work, of give and take, of treating people with respect. We don’t just expect our friends to be good partners, we know we have to work for that, to be good partners in order to have them. We understand inherently that we teach our friends how to treat us by how we treat them.

But maybe with family, we often just believe things will be good because they should be. Unfortunately, what I’m hearing from people who read this blog is that philosophy isn’t working so well. Too many of us are disappointed in our sibling relationships. The family waters are tougher to navigate than those of friendship. I’m seeking to understand why that is. Why do I and so many people I’ve connected with find loving friendships but fail to develop loving sibling relationships? Why are we so lost in the weeds in these waters?

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Are our expectations too great or is it something else entirely?

Surviving A Family Vacation

I live in a lovely place where huge family groups come to vacation. When I say huge family groups, I don’t just mean a lot of groups. I mean the groups are each huge. Folks rent enormous vacation rental homes, some accommodate 25 people under one roof. They actually choose to spend a week with all of those people, most of whom are relatives.

As you may know from reading this blog or my book, I wouldn’t be likely to need a huge house to accommodate my extended family since most of them don’t actually speak to us. Even before the “falling out,” though, I can’t imagine going on vacation with most of the people I’m related to, unless I was being punished for some super bad behavior. So you can imagine my sheer puzzlement (or shock) at seeing hordes of family members who actually choose to be together for the week.

Since I’m a people watcher I’ve learned a great deal from observing these groups in their unnatural habitat — a big house with 20+ relatives. I also see them on the beach, playing mini golf, at the supermarket, and other places people can truly drive each other crazy. If you have such a trip coming up this summer, take heed in these tips for getting out alive at the end of the week.

1. Don’t go. Unless you want to. People who are forced to go rarely have any fun at all. They are the ones rolling their eyes and complaining constantly. They are stirring up trouble all week. If you are going on this trip to please someone else in the family, I promise you that you won’t be the only one who is miserable. Make an excuse, say you can’t get time off from work but do yourself and everyone else a favor. If you don’t really want to go, please stay home.

2. If you do go, be cognizant of the fact that people on vacation have left their minds at home. Lower your expectations for reasonable behavior. They will make dumb choices, they will do things they would never do at home, they will embarrass you in public. Be prepared to see them in different ways than you see them at home when they’re not on vacation.

3. Go outside. A lot. Spending too much time together can be dangerous and deadly. Take a break. Politely announce, “I’m going for a walk,” or “Meditation Time” and get out of the house for a while. Ten minute breaks could work wonders for your nerves

4. Let some of your rules go. If you believe things have to work a certain way, like dinner must be at 6 and everyone must show up on time and eat after saying Grace for 10 minutes, you are destined to be disappointed. Not everyone functions the way you do. Let it go. Let it be. Let them live the way they want for once. You’re not there to teach them, you’re there to have some freaking fun so do it! Also, on that point, remember this: they don’t necessarily raise kids the way you do or you think they should. Really, really, let that go. Don’t try to show them the right way to raise kids even though we all know you’re better at it.

5. About kids, yours and/or theirs….Don’t punish children on the beach, in the park or in any public place. Don’t yell at them either. The whole world is watching, they have nothing else to do while they’re off from work. So, lighten up on the kids. Definitely do not do what I saw one parent do — call out “Mandatory reading time!” Then she took two perfectly happy kids away from building sandcastles and made them sit up on the beach for 45 minutes reading a book. I’m a former teacher. I think reading is a fantastic way to spend time, but reading on the beach because you are forced to is not a way to instill a love of literature in children.

6. For god’s sake find a good way to make a group decision. Just take one vote and majority rules. I can’t tell you how many people stand in groups in the supermarket trying to decide between cereals. For the love of all things holy, just grab the Corn Flakes and go! It’s cereal, people, it’s not war and peace.

7. Which leads me to the next point. There will be leaders and followers in your group. Someone has to step up and take responsibility for decisions in order to break ties. Let the leader or leaders do their job and be happy to be a follower. Too many leaders is a recipe for disaster but too much democracy leads to anarchy. One or two leaders should be chosen on Day 1 and everyone else should just let them make their magic happen. When things don’t go your way simply find a kindred spirit in the group and roll your eyes gently so he or she will know no one is doing things the way they should be. Have a buddy system so you can telegraph your disappointment to each other without actually yelling at anyone.

8. Which leads again to the next point. Develop a “Who cares?” attitude for the week. Didn’t get the restaurant or meal you wanted? Who cares? No one else wants to see the movie of your choice? Who cares? Are you going to let that ruin your vacation? Don’t be too set in your ways and desires. Remember, this is your time away from aggravation so just refuse to let it seep into your fun times. Appreciate the sights around you or the natural beauty of where you are. Nothing else should matter.

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9. Remember who these people are. If Uncle Harry annoys you at home, the likelihood is he will be astronomically obnoxious on vacation. If you are imagining you’ll like him better in larger doses, you’re insane. You’ll like him a lot less, so just know that going in and try to steer clear as much as possible.

10. Keep in mind, these are the people who help shape you. They love you and you love them. (some of them at least) And, if all else fails, keep in mind it’s only a week. Next week you’ll be back at work, safe and sound.