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Wednesday, 14 March 2012

How to be an Aging Parent

By Mark Sherman

Over the years, I have often written with loving humor about the relationship between parents and their adult children.

Back in 1985, when I was 42, I wrote a piece for my local newspaper titled “Solving the Parent Problem.” In it I said that while we may describe our own parents as difficult (if not impossible) to be with, our friends don’t see them that way. They find them intelligent, funny, and even charming.

So I suggested that we early middle-agers have a “parent exchange program” where, on visits, our parents stay with our friends and their parents stay with us.

Eleven years later, realizing that my idea had not yet taken off, I wrote, “There is only one truly satisfactory way to deal with your aging parents: Die young.”

Nearly eight years after that, I tried to give more practical advice based on observations about what seemed to have worked best for me and my mother, may she rest in peace.

I talked about the “four-day rule” which states, “As an adult child, never allow a visit to or from a parent to last more than four days.”

But a funny thing happened on my way to the grave: I became an aging parent. Almost overnight, it seems, everything has changed. The shoe, or more likely the slipper, is now on the other foot.

Now when my wife and I plan a visit to our adult children spread out over a week or 10 days, I will get an e-mail from at least one of them saying, “Hey, Dad, what about the four-day rule?”

Since time began, aging parents have tried to get a grip on their once cute children. This was codified in the commandment which reads, “Honor they father and mother.” A valiant attempt by our Biblical forbears but, unless by honoring they meant an e-mail now and then, it has clearly failed.

Elders talk all the time about the difficulties they have with their grown children as shown by such sayings as “Little children, little problems,” and jokes like this one:

Two elderly women are seated on a bench in Florida and one says to the other, “Do you have children?”

“No,” replies the second woman, to which the first says, “So what do you do for aggravation?”

Okay, there’s all this humor but the reality is, How can you be the best aging parent you can be?

There are books on this but I wonder how helpful they actually are. One title I found is How to Really Love Your Adult Child. I have no trouble really loving my adult children; that’s easy. It’s trying not to say the wrong thing that can be hard.

But, with my children ranging in age from 31 to 47, I have had a lot of experience and would like to share some of what I have learned. Of course, before I start, since I know one or more of my children could be reading this, please remember that this is a humorous piece and everything I say here could be taken with a grain of salt, which reminds me, there was just something on the news about how salt can be bad for you, so listen, guys, please start watching your salt intake if you haven’t already.

Oh yes, back to those suggestions for being the best parent you can be as your children head toward their prime and you fade into the sunset:

  1. Never send an e-mail to your adult child without reading it over at least three times and then checking with your spouse to make sure she or he thinks it’s okay.

  2. Remember that your children are busy. They are not retired. They may have small children of their own. They love you very much, but they have no time for you.

  3. Avoid the temptation to say, “You know, I won’t be around forever.” You may think this will get your adult children to think about spending more time with you but it will probably get them thinking about what you may be leaving them in your will.

  4. Yes, yes, I know, your kids are raising their kids all wrong. They are overly permissive or they are too restrictive, or they are helicopter parents, or they are letting their children – your grandchildren – do dangerous things, or they are holding them back too much. But you’d be best off following the advice of an older friend of mine, a grandfather of six, who said to me when I was about to become a grandfather for the first time, “Remember this: Zip your lip.”

  5. That “zip your lip” line is an understatement when it comes to your child’s spouse or partner.

  6. If you can afford it, sending money is always a good idea.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. PLEASE read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Excellent post!!!

Loved reading this again, Mark. I am blessed to be your friend. The question is: do I dare send this to my children and grandchildren? Especially the part about "You know I won't be around forever"?

What an excellent post...

I know I will read it more than once today (especially the "zip your lip" part)!!!

I agree with Claire Jean on this one,Mark.

I've had to zip my lip more than once over the years.

Nice writing!

Great blog, it is nice to have someone else re-enforce my feelings. I really like zip your lip!

Great tongue-in-cheek advice and oh so true! The 4 day rule is difficult to enforce when visiting family living great distances away - you don't go often and want to stay long enough to recover from jet lag and adjust to the time change!

Just forwarded this link to my husband and our two sons.
This was fun to read!

Here are a few suggestions to add to your list:
1. Invite them out to dinner and always pay the bill. (Coffee klatches work too)
2. Buy a red convertible--works both for grandchildren and children--you always have someone to drive for you, if you agree to the top down. (Just wear a stocking cap if you are worried about your hair. Either wind or hat, it's going to be a mess. Don't complain.
3. Money may be an issue for these ideas so choose what you can afford: a. For long distance travel, after 4 days move on to a nearby town, and rent a motel.
b. Make reservations in a motel at a place their family would enjoy (Disney World anyone?) and meet them there but only for 4 days. You will be exhausted by then.
c. Instead of sending money send them plane or train tickets to visit you.
If they can't make that long a trip, buy yourself some tickets and stay in a motel nearby that they can drive to. If there are grandkids, be sure there is a pool.
4.For men, invite your son to go with you on a motorcycle trip, fishing or hunting expedition, all expenses paid.

If none of these ideas are for you, and you have to stay more than 4 days, have a teeshirt made for each of the adults in the group that could say:
(Front of teeshirt)
"I promise to keep my lip zipped."
(Back of shirt)
"My zipper broke."
Turn around so you are not looking at them if you find yourself losing control, so they will know it was the zipper, not the promise that was broken.
Your article has stimulated a lot of thought for me. I wonder if your son or daughter feels that the teeshirt idea would help them as well.
Michigan Grandma

Great ideas and I always find #6 works best even though I feel it's little like bribery.

This was great day back reading all the pieces I have missed..Nice to know I am not the only "mom/nanny" who feels like many of the comments above...Lost my parents very young, and never knew grandparents, so in ways I am a new "face" in the family as Nanny..Computer and facebook at least keeps me up with the 6 grandchildren at times and I notice checks are always appreciated.. Yup, I am glad I have lots of company in the "keep your thoughts to yourself" department...Checkbook open/mouth shut...didn't mean that to sound as sharp as it does..I'm glad to still be around to be a pain to the children and grandkids...another chapter to the very interesting; BOOK OF LIFE....

Mark - that was a great post - so good to know other parents walk on eggshells - the problem with 'zip the lip' is that it makes most conversations pretty bland I find - I enjoy 'discussions' but have discovered that adult children seem to take discussions as criticism - pity - have to rely on friends or blogging to get my teeth into a topic - thanks again for the post.

It was so good to read this today. One thing to add: relationships with parents change. Small money is appreciated in the twenties and thirties, but when you hit the forties and Dad could afford to give more, I needed his advice on how to invest it. I might have misused it when younger. In my 20s, I might not have enjoyed the history he talks about that he does now. But I very much appreciated when they came to visit and stayed elsewhere. It gave me a break at the end of the day for hosting. And I assume zip lip is for how the kids run their life, not about the general news or politics or sports. No, giving money to kids should not be seen as bribery, tho if they are living life the way you don't want, it could be seen that way.

Loved your story Mark ,yes it is true we really don't understand our own parents ageing process untill we ourselves are doing it. I have a 3 day rule given to me by a wise elder I met somewhere along the way, he told me 'visitors are like fish they go off after 3 days!'.. so I abide by that rule as no 1 in my personal commandments, then friendships do last forever.

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