At some point you realize it: your parents are not just quaintly outdated, they have crossed the Rubicon. They are old. Suddenly these lovely humans whose steadfast support anchored your life now need an anchor themselves.
Eventually, you find yourself waiting for the call. A stroke, a heart attack, a terminal diagnosis? The day will come, but hear me, friends. Loving your parents well in this season will soothe your grief in the days to come.
Our call came on July 31, 2015. My 84-year-old father had suffered a major stroke and was in a coma. He never regained consciousness. No final goodbye, no last “I love you, Daddy.” But even in our grief, we had a wealth of memories and no regrets. Here are five things you can do to love your parents well before that call.
1. Nothing says “love” like “TIME”
When you’re raising your own family and growing your career, it’s hard to make time for your parents. I get it. But the return on this investment is huge.
Like many families, ours was geographically dispersed — parents in Colorado, two brothers in Wyoming, a sister in Indiana, and I’m in Missouri. Getting together required planning. In the decade before my dad passed, we made time with our parents a priority. We hosted and attended family reunions, went on an Alaskan cruise, took them on road trips, and shared several holidays. But one of the biggest treats for my folks was a week each summer when my sister and I came home to just hang out with them. We left our husbands and kids at home, and it was almost like taking a time machine back to our teen years. (Almost….the body fat followed us!) Once, we didn’t even tell them we were coming — just showed up and rang the bell! We all looked forward to the quiet intimacy of these weeks, and they are among my best memories.
2. Hang out in their world
Our parents’ desire to travel diminished along with their mobility. They were happiest at home. So when my sister and I visited, we simply joined them in whatever activities they had planned. That included water aerobics, auctions, gardening, canning and scrapbooking. We lingered over home-cooked meals and sipped root beer floats on the back patio. What a stark departure from our normal routines!
By stepping into their world, we learned what mattered to them. And I hope we communicated that they mattered to us.
3. Get to know their friends
When family lives far away, friends become a surrogate family. During the years after my siblings and I flew the nest, my parents built deep friendships with many remarkable people. As we spent time with our parents, their friends became our friends, too. These are the folks who will be by your side when the call comes, grieving with you, helping you, bringing casseroles. Get to know them now, and make sure you have their contact information.
4. Insist on helping
It hit us when my 75-year-old father casually mentioned that he had taken care of some problem on the roof. Wait, what? He climbed a ladder. Walked around on the roof. Oh my!
We had to tread carefully here. My dad could fix anything and took personal pride in maintaining an immaculate home and yard. It hurt his feelings a little to let us do things he had always done. Likewise, my mom has always been a fabulous cook, but cooking became increasingly difficult for her.
Eventually we talked them into keeping a list of projects for us. My sister and I cooked up a storm during our visits and packed the freezer. We siblings coordinated our visits to cover the other projects.
Be patient if they are reluctant to let you help, but sometimes you have to insist. Observe what needs to be done and try to do it the way they want it done.
5. Document your time together
We extended the joy of these visits by documenting our fun in photo books. They do take a little time, but photo books are easy to create and inexpensive. Now that my dad is gone, my mom loves to look back on our times together. We are so deeply grateful for each memory, and we still love a good root beer float in Daddy’s honor.