It’s the Least I Could Do — A Meditation on Aging Parents

As many of you know, I am fortunate at the family level in that everyone in my immediate family is still married to the first person they married — something which is not all that common, eh?

In my parents’ case, that means they’ve been married to each other for 64 — and a half — years. Think of it: that’s eight separate eight-year chunks, one after the other, each of which is a great couple’y accomplishment unto itself — and a half.  It’s also the same amount of time involved in raising four sixteen-year-olds from start to finish, newborn to teenager, end-to-end — and a half. It’s also the age that Paul McCartney thought was very old. My folks have been married that long — and a half.

That also means that my parents are both in their late 80s. Us kids — their kids — can only hope that we got as lucky a jump into the gene pool as these two did, because both of them have had long, healthy, happy lives.

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Ah, but age does take its toll, doesn’t it?

For some years now everyone in my family has been learning a new way to hear the word decline, as that’s how long my father’s health has been in decline and, lately, in accelerating decline at that.

Everything that swirls around that decline has been some of the hardest stuff our family has ever experienced. For my dad, the hard part is being cognizant of, and living within the body and the mind that is experiencing, that decline. For the rest of us it’s been about helping him negotiate the various challenges he faces, whether it’s negotiating the simple physical world (he’s nowhere near as spry as he once was) or negotiating the truly horrendous medical and long-term-care bag-o’-bones systems (or should I say collection of parts?) all of us have built in this lovely and wonderful country of ours. We did build that.

But it’s also been a wonderful experience at the family level, as we all conspire together to make the best of every situation, each with our own way of accomplishing, each with our own strengths and weaknesses, gently adding it all together as we journey along this oh-so-difficult path that oh-so-many have traveled before and that oh-so-many will travel in the days ahead.

Through it all I’ve never had more profound, more intense, more of-the-essence interactions with the members of my family, whether that’s the all-kids-on-deck, cross-nation group phone calls we do many weekends, or the quiet late-night phone calls with just my mom and me, or the worker-bee-laden visits with my dad when he is being cared for elsewhere and there are folks, everywhere, giving care to the elders and to the infirm. I’ve never been so proud of my family unit.

And as all of it takes up more time and energy, I’ve come to know that one phrase is more apropos in this context than in any other:

It’s the least I could do. 

And that’s true even when I’m givin’ it everything I’ve got — givin’ it my all.

Our parents raised us. Most would’ve died for us. Literally. And most probably still would.

So we help them in any way we can as they reach their later years and then into their later, later years and then on to their decline. It’s an imperative, not a choice; it’s built into us, all the way down at our DNA.

As best I can tell, this is also true for families less Cleaver-esque than the very Cleaver-esque Friedman Family of which I speak, so that, even for those of us whose parents were rotten parents and/or even for those of us who don’t share DNA with our parents and/or even for those of us who’ve grown apart from our parents, it seems like there is still some somethin’-somethin’ that mostly compels most of us most of the time, when we’re called, to hop-to and be of service to those who helped clear the path for us as we made our respective ways through our younger years.

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One of the amazing things about my parents’ generation — the folks who were kids during The Great Depression — is that they’ve had a terrifically wonderful, and in some ways quite jarring, later-life surprise, in that those who are still with us have all lived about a decade or two longer than any of them in their right minds had a right to expect when they were young!

Think of it: when they mocked up a good long life way back then, what they saw was a life lasting into their 70s or, if they were aiming high and had family members who had blazed that trail, maybe into their 80s. But what they got instead were lives lasting longer, on well into their 80s and 90s and even into their 100s.

The odds are that my generation, the Baby Boomer generation — yup, that’s the one I’m t – t – t – t – talking ’bout — will not be similarly surprised — we will not find ourselves having to re-calibrate our idea of long-life as something involving numbers like eleventy-one or twelvety-two (thank you, J.R.R. Tolkien, for the idea that 111 is best thought of as eleventy-one, an idea which I up-and-ran-with all the way to 122). And I’ll even take that further and go out on a limb here (not to worry: as I get older, I hold on more and more carefully to handrails, so as not to fall) by predicting that that’s just not gonna happen . . . 

Instead, the Baby Boomer generation’s lot in the life-expectancy lottery is to have the relatively recent living-into-our-80s/90s/100s possibility bundled-in with the demise of pension plans and the rise of the hating-it-ever-since-the-first-day-it-opened-up-for-business despising-lobby, consisting of folks who have it in for government-run Social Security and Medicare — a potentially wicked combination, that, especially given that the despising-lobby is very, very good at swaying others to share their positions.

And so, same as it ever was, it will be our kids’ lot in their mid-lives to help us as we negotiate a new-found set of pros and cons that await us, part and parcel of our living to a wonderful, hopefully-old age, whatever number of years that might be for us and for our particular cases.

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All of which is to say: blogging will be light for a while. I’ve got family stuff to do.


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  1. Posted by Nancy Donovan on Monday, January 14, 2013 at 2pm
    hi John: Thanks so much for that! Appreciate your sensibility in dealing with difficult family issues, and your appreciation of community effort in lightening each other's burdens. It takes a tribe.