How old were you when your parents got your attention? Not your biological parents, but your “other parents”—you know them, don’t you, Mother Nature and Father Time? Some of us make their acquaintance at a younger age than others, and some of us know them far more intimately than we might like.
Regardless of how young we are when we feel the nudges of Father Time, he’s usually not graciously welcomed as a permanent feature of our lives. Studies show that for most of us, the aging process starts to get our attention at about age 40. I’ve heard many people say that once they hit 40, “things started falling apart.” Then, as we approach 50 (the “Big 5-0”) we truly, psychologically begin to feel the reality of aging setting in.
However, there’s yet another, later stage of the aging process that is less talked about, but no less real. Most of us don’t even like to think about it, but there comes a point at which a window opens up, giving us a glimpse into our later years. That clarity of vision may last only a moment or two—but it’s enough to give us food for thought. I’m talking about the moment when we recognize our human vulnerability—the real possibility we all face of ultimately losing our independence.
I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe people moving through that latter stage of the aging process—a stage when they need help with their ordinary daily activities—by having been the primary responsible caregiver for 4 different people over a number of years.
My first experience was caring for a dear aunt and uncle, a position that lasted for over 6 years. My uncle, a WWII vet, was a beloved and special man who faced his aging with as much humor and grace as possible. I learned a lot about one’s acceptance of aging from Uncle Jim, and as best I could, helped him cope and embrace this time in his life. By contrast, my aunt, who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, lost awareness of her surroundings for about 3 years before her death. Uncle Jim used to assure me he’d rather be aware of his physical decline than be in the position of not knowing what was going on. (The jury is still out as to my own opinion about this).
Helping my dad was my 3rd experience at caregiving, and even though my sister and my mom participated in this with me, I was the designated responsible person for overseeing his care. His decline and subsequent death were not expected. It started with a scheduled heart valve replacement. Although this open-heart surgery was extremely serious, especially at his age of 86, he went through it with flying colors—to the delight of his surgeon, cardiologist and medical team.
We not only had a “Plan” in place for this event, we had “Plan B” as well. However, we were soon faced with having to accept that our Plan A was not going to be fulfilled. Then, in rapid succession, we discovered that even our Plan B could not be implemented: shortly after the surgery, Dad’s health started a rapid decline, and he succumbed to a cancer that we’d had no idea was even present.
The loss of a parent is devastating, no matter the time or circumstance. My mom lost her best friend and companion of 66 years, I and my sister lost our dad, and my children and grandchildren lost their granddad and great grandfather. Our life and health we take for granted, no matter our age. Even though my dad was 86, he didn’t expect his life to be over so suddenly, nor did we expect to lose him at this time—although we were aware of the reality of his combined age and condition.
Currently, I oversee the care of my mom, who lives in an Assisted Living facility about 45 minutes from my home. Her world—as she had known it since the age of 16—was abruptly changed 2 years ago, and she fights this new world kicking and screaming. On a recent trip to a doctor’s appointment, I decided to ask Mom a few questions to try and get a feel for her “state of mind” about this period in her life.
This doctor visit, by the way, was a follow-up related to her third fall in the 2 years since losing her independent way of living. This time she’d suffered a hairline fracture requiring a splint, which meant she was in even greater need of help with some activities of daily living than usual. Keep in mind that she relies on a walker full time, has experienced a heart attack and TIA during this timeframe, and overall, is not a happy camper, to say the least.
So I was not expecting her response to my question, “Mom, what would you say to people in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s today about being prepared to live in this stage of their lives?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “I’d tell them to get Long Term Care Insurance.” Honestly, I was impressed (and proud of her) that she was so quick to respond with this answer when I hadn’t even intended the question to be related to finances, but rather was aiming at a more emotional level.
But I seized the opportunity and asked her why she felt this way. “So they could get the care they are going to have to have without having to worry about how it will be paid for, and won’t have to be a burden to their families any more than they have to,” she said. This let me know that even though I have tried to assure my mom that she is financially “OK,” this obviously isn’t enough assurance for her.
I’ll concede that there is no way one can create a “Plan” for the totally unexpected surprise event. The quote on my business card: “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and be prepared to be surprised” (Dennis Waitely) is my mantra—as very often “life” does not go as expected. Nevertheless, my extensive caregiving experience has taught me the wisdom to accept my future vulnerability and the value of planning to be able to meet my needs as they arise—to the extent that it’s possible to do so.
What if you “arrive there” without a plan, and your family has to put aside their lives and react without any guidance or direction from you? No one can guarantee that having a “Plan” gives you the certainty that it can be executed exactly. However, going through the process of creating a plan does provide you the opportunity to think through and communicate with your family what your preferences are. Don’t you agree, the consequences are significant enough to warrant having this conversation?
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” (Wayne Dyer). Change your mind about keeping this topic on the back burner of your priorities.
If you need help or guidance with having this conversation with clients and family and friends, please contact me. The one thing I know for sure is that “this stage” is a whole lot easier if we’ve planned for it. I’ve listened to my parents and my aunt and uncle. Will YOU listen?