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Tenderness and Grace: Finding Comfort in Caring for Aging Parents

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

Your care for others is the measure of your greatness. – Luke 9:48

Time moves on and parents grow old.  It is a sobering reality of life.  The person who you idolized as a ten year old sometimes becomes the topic of tough conversations between family members as their lives begin to ebb.  Far too many times, our parent’s lives seem to fade into a slow goodbye.

In her new book, As My Parents Age, author Cynthia Ruchti shares wisdom and comfort for the myriad of situations we face, as our parents grow older.  With a warm sense of compassion,  empowers readers to care for our aging loved ones as gracefully and graciously as possible.

I recently sat down with Ruchti to discuss what is most important when caring for aging parents, why gratitude is so important in the care-giving process, and some best practices for balancing life’s other responsibilities.

It’s funny how the child often becomes the parent, isn’t it? 

Yes. Interestingly enough, I have seen both sides of it. My father passed away before he had a chance to age. He was only 64, which seems pretty young, and my mother passed away at 83 after a long battle of congestive heart failure. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and the reality is there are only three options. We’re either going to be there as our parents age; they will have passed away early; or we don’t know who our parents were or where they are.

Everybody else in the population is going to go through it at some level and it’ll either be a short period of time or it could be a long, long season of that. It’s a topic that is not often addressed from either the deep perspective of the aging parent, or the perspective of how this affects the adult child trying to manage all of this and watching these things happen, most of which are not fun, funny or enjoyable.

Please share your heart for your new book, As My Parents AgeWhy did you write it?

I talked to many other people who had been through either a very positive experience of how they learned how to navigate those waters, or negative experiences, maybe they had a parent who was hostile in all of the growing up years of that child and was still hostile in the end, or they changed personalities toward the end. Maybe they were kind and gentle during all of those growing up years with that child and now the child’s an adult and their parent is someone they don’t even recognize, just as much as where the parent doesn’t recognize the child sometimes, with the dementia issue. Digging into it I knew I was writing from a place of having experienced it but also listening to those who are going through that and seeing that everybody has a story. Some of them are sweet memories that were made during that time period. What a wonderful goal that that’s what would come out of that season, or being able to walk through with the aging parent maintaining their dignity, showing grace, showing love, even developing love in a deeper way than they ever had before. Those are wonderful goals. The reality of it is there are tough conversations. There are times when that child has to take almost a disciplinary role with the parent, and the parent hates it and the child hates it too, but it has to be done.

As you were researching and writing this book, what were some of the greatest challenges that you found of people facing life with aging parents?

One of the things that appeared to be among the most difficult was the inability to have those tough conversations where a mother or a father or the children say no, let’s not talk about the issues now. We’re not going to talk about what you want for your funeral service, mom, because that’s just looking at it in a morbid way. Or the parent refusing to talk about those issues or how far do you want the medical community to go when you’re in the end stages of life. If you can’t have conversations like that, everybody’s at a loss at the end, the doctors, the patient, and the children. If you can have those conversations, which are hard, then everybody’s well prepared. When my father was sitting with me in the waiting room when my mom was going through an emergency heart surgery, we weren’t planning my mom’s funeral but my dad said, “Let’s plan mine.” So, I took notes from my father that I didn’t know I would be using two years later. The songs he wanted sung, every hymn ever written, the scriptures that he wanted to include in his service and the flavor of what he wanted that service to be like. It was such a precious time for the two of us, and when we got that middle-of- the-night phone call that dad had died, I knew right where the folder was of what his wishes were and could pull those out. If we hadn’t had the kind of relationship and if he hadn’t been willing to talk about the tough things, we would have been at a loss which would have made the grief all the harder to walk through.

Why is gratitude so important to the care giving process?  How are these two things connected?

Not only is it a great Biblical principle, that God would love us to be leading lives of gratitude day in and day out, but if a caregiver is grateful for the moments he or she has with the aging parent, and the one being cared for is grateful for every kindness, what a wonderful atmosphere in which to journey through this very difficult time. But if there’s ingratitude coming from either side, or another aspect of it is if there are children who live far away and there’s one child who is very near an aging mom or dad, and the siblings who live far away aren’t able to find ways to show their gratitude to the immediate caregiver, there’s a natural breach or a distancing. If we can breach that distance, it’s really helpful. It’s very painful to have an aging parent who lives so far away that you’re not involved in their care.

If you’re able to be there and stop in on an afternoon and sit there with dad for a while and just have a moment with him, there’s refreshment that comes from that for both child and parent. Finding ways of expressing gratitude either to the caregiver or from the one being cared for, if gratitude fills the home, it’s naturally going to be an easier process than if bitterness or frustration or anger, or resistance from either party to what’s going on in this process. God told us it was going to be like this.  We know it’s going to be like this. How we navigate it really has to do a lot with how we’re obeying what God told us about all relationships.

What advice do you have for balancing life’s other responsibilities (work, marriage, children) with those of parental care giving?

Sometimes it’s a lot like triage.  Who’s bleeding the worst at the moment? Is my teenage child the one who emotionally is the most fragile right now or is my 80 year old mom the one who’s the most emotionally fragile right now; and we do feel ripped apart by that, trying to balance that. We may have to work a full-time job we’re responsible to and we know that we need to be responsible to that. Sometimes it means that we have to realize where our limits are and call in professional help, or call in a friend from church who would be willing to take mom to her doctor’s appointment this afternoon, or can you just sit with dad for this afternoon, because I have to take care of this other need. But beyond even calling in help, sometimes we just have to realize that if we’re trying to do this without restoring our souls in that quiet place with God, if we’re trying to do it just because God asked us to without coming close up to God and saying, “God, you’re going to have to fill me this minute to help me decide which is the most important thing.”

How is the book structured?  I have discovered that it could very easily be used as a devotional book.

That was very intentional. Thanks for noticing that. I wanted so much for weary adults caring for their aging parents to have a nugget in the beginning of each chapter that, even if that’s all they read, they have one little paragraph because they’re so torn between the needs of their parents and their kids or their job. Then there’s the devotional thought that is in storytelling form, because we all relate to stories. So I use other people’s stories with my own and weave in Scripture. The very end of each chapter ends with a prayer that is written in poetic form so that if all they get done that day, if all they can manage is that one page, it forms the words that they may not be able to form that will strengthen their relationship with the Lord so that they have the strength to minister to their parents.

We’ll close with this today. As you were researching and writing this book, A) what did God teach you through this experience and B) what did you learn about yourself?

Oh, that’s a good question. I think one of the things that God reminded me of is something that I knew and that was “I’ve covered this, too. This is not a season that you’re going to walk through that I haven’t already prepared comfort for, instruction for, attitude adjustments for. I have this covered” and He understands. But also one of the personal lessons that I really gained and I know from experience, too: this can be a tender time, as I was writing the book, I realized that I had much to be grateful for in not only the people that my parents were and the way they lived their life, but that they introduced me to Jesus Christ early on. And so I was equipped knowing that I knew that I would see them again as well, and that their future was covered, that mom was not afraid to die. She wasn’t comfortable with the dying process, but we could in those last moments assure her, mom, there won’t be a half a second, there won’t be a nanosecond of space between our holding your hands and Jesus holding your hand, and there was such joy in that. So that helped us as a family turn that very end of life, the very last moments of caring for an aging parent into something that was precious and memorable. I got to relive some of that as I wrote this book, but my hope is that there would be others who would read the book who would see that’s our goal. That if those end moments can be precious, because we have our good relationship in the in between season, then my heart would be gratified by that.

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