Their Parents' Keepers: Children Who Care for Elders Often Find It Rewarding

By Paula Span
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My father and I were waiting in the director's office for our tour to begin. With a recent haircut, he looked almost dapper despite the two hearing aids.

I admired the way he'd put together a life since my mother died. He had good friends, played cards several nights a week, faithfully attended services at his synagogue, shopped and cooked for himself. With prescriptions to keep his cholesterol and blood sugar in line, he was relatively healthy.

Yet how long could we be this fortunate? He was 83 then. Sooner or later, my sister and I knew, he'd need more help.

Nobody wants to have to face such questions. Yet we want to do the best we can for the people who did the best they could for us. Maybe this assisted-living place was where Dad would want to be, when the time came.

It might be several years before he needed assisted living, but he also might have a health crisis and need a nursing home next week. Uncertainty was built into the process.

We prepare for other major changes in life (marriage, parenting, retirement), but this one, caring for our aging parents, seems to take us by surprise. It shouldn't: Two-thirds of seniors will need some form of long-term care. I hoped I could be at least semi-prepared.

* * *

I noticed in my late 40s that conversations with friends I ran into at the gym or the supermarket had begun to change. We once recommended pediatricians, debated the best science teachers, traded gossip about college admissions.

Now every other exchange seemed to concern parents. Geriatricians instead of pediatricians. Not SATs, but ADLs (activities of daily living, an assessment of how much assistance seniors need).

"We are living in an age like no other, and everybody is trying to feel their way through it," says Suzanne Mintz of the National Family Caregivers Association.

What has changed? Our parents live longer, largely because deaths from heart disease and strokes have dropped sharply. Men who turn 65 can anticipate 17 more years, and women 20 more.

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