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I’m just here: Tips for adult children and older adults to navigate faithful aging

Missy Buchanan offers advice for those caring for aging parents, noting it isn’t a reversal of roles, rather, an evolution of a relationship.

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A three-word phrase regularly circulates among older adults. The expression reveals the mindset many people hold in late life. More importantly, it is a neon sign begging families and churches to pay attention. Three simple but heartbreaking words: I’m just here.

I became aware of how common this phrase is while making regular visits to my parents’ senior living community in 2000. I heard the phrase repeated daily as residents passed one another in the dining room or hallways. An older adult pushing a walker would stop to ask a fellow resident how they’re doing. Almost always the resident’s response was “I’m just here.”

I’m just here. The sense of purposelessness in these words is palpable. It is just another way for these older adults to say they are biding time in God’s waiting room until Death calls their name.

My experience at my parents’ senior community is the primary reason I started writing and speaking about faithful aging. To hear older adults still repeating that phrase today is sobering. How many of these older saints – who attended church, taught Sunday school and served on mission trips earlier in life – have arrived at the same mistaken conclusion in old age? How have they succumbed to a belief that their late lives have no purpose?

What happens when one’s purpose changes?

I once heard a story about an ancient aqueduct that began to crumble when the water from the surrounding mountains was rerouted to flow into a modern system of pipes that carried the water downhill to the village. The town leaders who wanted to preserve the historic structure were shocked to discover that without water to cool the sunbaked bricks and mortar, the aqueduct began to disintegrate. This crumbling aqueduct is an image of older adults who have lost their purpose in late life.

Culture constantly bombards older adults with the message that they are obsolete in our fast-changing, technology-driven world.

Culture constantly bombards older adults with the message that they are obsolete in our fast-changing, technology-driven world. Families and churches have a vital role in helping aging loved ones rediscover their divine purpose. Otherwise they will falter like the ancient aqueduct, unable to fulfill their calling in late life.

Differing priorities among adult children and older adults

The aqueduct story reminds me of a survey I have conducted informally for the last decade, as I have traveled to speak about faithful aging. On occasions where both adult children and their aging parents were present at the same event, I asked each generation a specific question and then wrote their responses in my journal.

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I asked the adult children what they wanted most for their aging parents in their late life, other than good health. Their answers fell into three categories: safety and security, a nice living environment and help with daily activities.

Then I turned the tables and asked the aging parents what they most wanted for themselves in this season of life, other than good health. Their responses also fell into three categories: to have meaning and purpose, to be as respected and independent as possible and to have deep, fulfilling relationships.

The answers from both groups were commendable. However, as I compared the two lists, I had an epiphany. The adult children named things that mostly impact the exterior life of their aging parents, while the older adults’ answers focused on their inner life. To have a life of meaning and purpose was the top answer for the aging parents — yet the adult children didn’t mention it at all. The disparity reminded me that each generation looks through its own lens. The contrast also highlighted the need for adult children and aging parents to have meaningful conversations about difficult issues.

Generational difference was also evident on a cold winter day when I sat in a busy airport restaurant, where travelers with heavy coats and carry-on luggage packed into the dining area. I could not help but overhear a group of middle-aged women, seated next to me, who were surprisingly dressed in sandals and tropical clothes. Caregivers for aging parents, they were headed to the beach as a respite getaway. Their champagne toast and joyful laughter quickly transitioned to a serious conversation about their caregiving roles and their frustrations with aging parents, who they wanted to quit driving or to move to assisted living.

Listening to these middle-aged friends share their innermost feelings about caregiving made me think of how often I have observed similar scenes playing out among aging parents. Many times, I have been seated at tables with older adults, who spoke honestly about their frustrations with adult children who treat them like children, who perhaps mock them for being slow to embrace technology or make decisions for them. Older adults have sought me out following speaking events to say how they wished their adult children were there to hear my message, because their kids just don’t understand what it is like to grow old.

In that moment at the crowded airport restaurant, I strongly suspected that each generation, older and younger, is talking within their own groups about the hard things of aging — but not talking with
each other.

The “sandwich generation”

While taping a recent story for a local news network, I met a middle-aged television producer. She lingered to talk about challenges she was having with her own aging parents. As a producer, she was accustomed to the stress that comes with managing live television. She had produced segments in real time about multiple tornadoes touching down at once and had covered live shooter and hostage events. Nothing, she said, had prepared her for the anxieties she was experiencing as a caregiver for her aging parents. With tears rimming her eyes, she spoke about feeling unprepared and totally inadequate.

This news producer is certainly not alone. Another woman described to me her life in the “sandwich generation” – the season when adult children are caring for their own children and their aging parents at the same time – as being a panini: a sandwich that is pressed and grilled on both sides.

No doubt many adult children know what it’s like to be the rock on one end of a teeter totter when a heavy load is dropped on the other side. Suddenly their lives are upended, flung in disarray, by the changing circumstances of their aging parents. At the same time, aging parents struggle to find balance as unwanted change crashes into them as well. We should not be surprised when older loved ones retreat to a cushy recliner to spend their days watching cable news.

Adult children and aging parents alike desperately need the church to help them build resilient, grace-filled relationships for the journey of aging.

Navigating the journey together

Adult children and aging parents alike desperately need the church to help them build resilient, grace-filled relationships for the journey of aging. Both generations need practical advice, training and encouragement to have difficult conversations about late life in God-honoring ways.

Here are a few tips to help adult children and older adults take the first steps toward navigating the journey together.

1. Learn to stand in the other generation’s shoes. Adult children should assume a posture of humility and imagine the frustrations and fears their aging parents must feel as they endure relentless change in this season of late life: physical decline, loss of loved ones through death or a move, loss of home and cherished belongings, loss of independence and the ability to drive, and loss of energy, hearing and vision. The impact of these accumulated losses is typically unique to late life and is best understood as compounded loss.

Aging parents should likewise try to step into the shoes of their adult children and remember what those hectic middle years of life were like. Their adult children are likely juggling careers, parenting responsibilities and school, community and church activities while also navigating the unfamiliar landscape of being a caregiver for their older loved ones. Not surprisingly, they are experiencing their own tsunami of mixed-up emotions.

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2. Recognize that it is not a role reversal. Contrary to what we often hear, describing the adult child–aging parent relationship as a role reversal is faulty at best. Even if an older loved one requires assistance with basic daily needs, they should not be thought of as a child. Believing that younger and older adults somehow switch roles specifically endangers the well-being of the aging parent. The idea robs the older person of dignity and respect at a time when they are the most vulnerable, and it dismisses the life experiences they have accrued over the years. Imagine what five-year-old child has been the CEO of a company, served as a union shop steward or raised a family of five. Certainly, in some situations an older loved one’s mental state requires that adult children make decisions on their behalf — but respect and dignity should always be topmost in the minds of adult children. Instead of considering it a role reversal, consider the dynamic to be a role shift, in which the adult child takes on new responsibilities for the aging parent, while each holds steadfast to the adult child and aging parent identifications.

3. Include aging parents in conversations. Oftentimes well-intentioned family members treat aging parents as if they are invisible or somehow incapable of participating in conversations. People talk above them or past them, forgetting to include them. Adult children need to be intentional about how they engage their aging parents in decision-making conversations, especially those that directly impact their parents’ lives. Adult children should not assume they know what’s best for an aging parent or what their parent is thinking. Adult children would do better to lead with questions that show respect and help the two generations work together toward a solution. “Mom, Dad, what do you think we should do?” “What do you think would be the best way forward?”

4. Talk so the other generation can hear. Another communication pitfall between adult children and aging parents can be explained by something my grandson said when he was five years old. In the midst of a disagreement, he told his older brother, “My ears hear you but my heart just can’t.” It’s true. Sometimes the struggle to communicate has to do more with emotions than with audible words.

All desperately need God’s abundant grace as they continue to grow in faith and understanding on the journey.

An example is the adult daughter who looks through her aging mother’s refrigerator and notes the expiration date on the milk. She makes an unsolicited comment with a huff of frustration: “Mom, your milk expired day before yesterday.” The aging parent bristles. In her mind, the adult child is implying something more: “You can’t take care of yourself. It’s time we move you to a nursing home.”

It is not unusual for aging parents to feel that their adult children are spying on them, actively looking for signs that they can no longer take care of themselves. Understandably, older loved ones often respond defensively. Even so, direct and healthy communication is needed. Adult children who regularly show respect and empathy for their
aging parent will have greater success in communicating and working together.

5. Find purpose in the journey. Having a purpose gives older adults reason to get excited about living. Think of the retired art teacher who joyfully creates paintings that can be reproduced on notecards and sold to fund a mission project. Consider the 84-year-old accountant who volunteers at his church, helping newly single parents create budgets and make wise financial decisions. Imagine the resident of a senior living community who leads a memoir-writing class, assisting other residents to write their life stories as a gift for their families.

To finish well, older adults need inspiration and ideas for ways to use their gifts, talents and life experiences to serve others, in spite of their own physical limitations. They need family members to remind them of God’s promises, even as they embark on the journey of aging together. Adult children, meanwhile, need support and encouragement from their faith community as they try to steady their aging parent on the rocky path. All desperately need God’s abundant grace as they continue to grow in faith and understanding on the journey.