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Accompanying Our Parents Into Old Age

 

When journalist Judy Kramer’s parents moved into a nursing home, she suddenly had to worry over the bills, learn the in’s and out’s of the health care system, assume power of attorney, deal with a host of bureaucratic complications and initiate painful conversations with her parents about how they wanted to die. And all this while working full-time and caring for a family.

In her book, Changing Places: A Journey With My Parents Into Their Old Age (Riverhead Books, NY), Kramer chronicles a clearheaded and intimate portrait of her parents’ move to a nursing home to their deaths four years later and through the following two years, when she was still putting the pieces together.

“At times, traveling with my parents into their old age has felt like forced labour,” she observes. “Often I have not wanted to go. But it gives me great satisfaction that we have dealt with the roadblocks, followed the detours, found the route, and made the trip together.”

Kramer did not set out to advise readers on how to care for aging parents. Rather, she aimed to describe how it feels to do so. Yet, she provides many helpful hints.

Here are a few:

Listening is a powerful medicine.
Sharing insights with people who have gone through similar experiences is helpful.
Be ready to experience a roller coaster of emotions. Fear when the phone rings, joy on discovering the perfect gift (such as using a music stand to stabilize books that shaky hands could no longer hold), frustration when responsibilities to parents conflict with obligations to the family.
Learn to ask for what you need.
Realize that families carry baggage on their journey together (anger, resentment, and hurt feelings).
Some things can’t be fixed and can only be lived through.
Humour can frequently save the day (Kramer presented her mother with her repaired teeth on Mother’s Day).
There is no lonelier decision to make in this world than the one to allow a parent to die (even when they have talked clearly about their wishes and have left written directions).

Kramer also provides tips to her grown children:

I am modeling the way I would like to be treated when I am old.
Your relationship with your grandparents is your own. I won’t tell you what to do.

Kramer’s story began as a series of newspaper columns recording how she cared for her parents. It blossomed into a poignant book that plumbs the depths of the human spirit. As she observes, “My life changed forever in the process of helping each of my parents have as good a death as was possible.”

Each time of life has its own kind of love.

- Leo Tolstoy