Changing of the Guard

By NANCY PATRICK

I recently had my seventy-first birthday. (I didn’t say “celebrate” because I don’t enjoy birthdays as some people do.) My birthdays, especially those of the past two decades, have effected a time of reflection and assessment for me. 

I think my family must have had some pretty good genes because most of us have lived full lives. I don’t mean we’ve had centenarians, but our family members have primarily made it to their seventies and beyond. That sounds fortunate until you realize that at some point your family might have a lot of elderly members at the same time.  

I recall bragging in my sixties that my husband and I still had all four of our parents. Most of our aunts, uncles, and cousins still lived active, healthy lives as well. Obviously, our family had members in their sixties, seventies, and eighties: these ages clearly suggest that people will begin dying at some point.

One of the positive aspects of aging in my life has produced my growing awareness of generational family relationships. Now that all but one of my family members in the generation ahead of me have died, I’ve become more sensitive to their legacies. Obviously, I did not have identical relationships with all of them, but I did have a unique relationship with each one.

I recently lost my last paternal uncle. He had a colorful life that he filled with as much fun as he possibly could. My dad’s older brother, Raymond, always seemed to have the Midas touch. Uncle Raymond, a handsome and intelligent man, played an important role in my family.

When he and my dad (two years younger) finished their Army service during WWII, Uncle Raymond began a long and varied professional life that included owning and operating a lawn sprinkler company. My uncle employed my dad for twenty years, thus enabling our family to maintain a stable home during my childhood.

I suspect my dad and his brother had a complicated relationship, but I know they had a special bond. I appreciate the hardships many of those in the WWII generation endured. Those hard times created many emotional difficulties beyond my experiences, but I am grateful Uncle Raymond, my dad, and many other men of their generation fulfilled, to the best of their ability, their commitments to their country and to their families.

Many in my parents’ generation began delegating some of their responsibilities to their children who were in their fifties and sixties. When my parents reached their seventy-fifth birthdays, they signed over their powers of attorney to me. I kept up with all the legal and financial matters that concerned them. Fortunately, my parents trusted me completely and, in essence, told me to act in their behalf.

As I have observed many other families go through angry, antagonistic transitions, I have thanked God that my parents knew I would never behave in any way to their detriment. Even my younger sister, whom I kept informed about everything I did, trusted me and knew I would never do anything that would impact her or our parents negatively.

One of the most difficult aspects of aging (from my perspective) involves recognizing and accepting the changes that happen to many of us as we age. Some people manage the details of their lives much better than others. Dementia does not respect social class, race, gender, or religion. As I age, I have reminded my husband and son that if they see I begin losing “myself,” I want them to take the necessary steps to ensure my safety while at the same time keeping the qualities of their own lives.

No one wants to become a burden to other family members. Sadly though, most parents who live long lives will, at different levels, become burdensome to their children. My own goal focuses on giving my son the gift of freedom to live his life without being yoked to a mother whose needs or desires rob him of his own joy in life. In other words, a time will come to change the guards in our lives. That sad time requires extreme sacrifice and unselfish love from the old guard.

No one wants to go to the nursing home or “old folks’ home” as we used to call it. The nursing home by most standards represents the last stop for its residents. Knowing and accepting that reality can cause fear and resentment in the old guard while it can create a great sense of guilt in the new guard. I know many people who tell their children “the only thing I ask of you is that you never put me in a nursing home.”

What an onerous burden to put on the children we love! When parents extract that promise, no one involved can foresee what the future may hold. A healthy seventy-five-year-old dad who puts that burden on his child has no idea what state of health (mental or physical) five years may bring. Broken hips, diseases, dementia—all these enemies lurk around the corner for many of us. Do we really want our children to sacrifice themselves to take care of the extreme needs we may have?

Because modern medicine has extended lives for many people, some live well past the years their own parents lived. Today, many people live well into their nineties and even early hundreds. If I should live into my nineties, I would not want to burden my seventy-year-old son with caring for his mother. Writing this article has been difficult. Reading it is also difficult. Deciding to make plans and decisions for our later years is a smart thing to do while we still have the physical and mental acuity to do it. 

 Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing

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