Editor’s note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes that aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging.
Among the many passages that boomers face is the transition from adult child to — an odd description, but nonetheless accurate — orphan. We usually think of that term only in relation to young children, but it applies equally to adults who no longer have a living parent. And for those in the midst of this phase of life, the word evokes emotions that can feel surprisingly accurate.
I recently lost my mom, who died at 92. My grief seems out of sync with societal norms regarding the death of the frail elderly, where relief from the burdens of their care is supposed to overshadow the sorrow of their loss. That does not begin to describe the complex emotions that emerge when your one remaining parent is gone.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
In retrospect, I see this passage as a shared experience that most of us travel alone. For a generation that blazed so many trails in our youth, we have one major revolution ahead. We must find a way to age and die with dignity, and be in as much control of our end-of-life process as we have been of all other aspects of our younger lives.
(MORE: Transforming Life as We Age)
My story is similar to the experiences of other boomers, differing only in timing and place.
My dad died more than two decades ago, when he was only 72. Following his sudden death, I mourned the doting father whose unconditional love supported me through many difficult moments. As a parent of two young children, I was acutely aware of the importance of unrestricted love to my own offspring and bereft over the reality that my kids would be deprived of this wonderful man’s equally devoted grandparenting.
Losing a Spouse
My mom outlived her beloved husband by more than 20 years. During that time, she followed the path of so many widows of her generation. She left the town they’d lived in (for more than 45 years) to be closer to her children. She moved to an apartment building that felt intensely lonely without her spouse, but never failed to put on a positive face for her family.
Over time, we saw her memory weaken. We adapted as best we could, which means we compensated for her failings to protect her, increasingly did more for her without being asked so she wouldn’t have to do as much, and failed to make the harder choices for too long.
(MORE: Learning to Live While Dying)
As her memory failed, her friends disappeared. When she had to move to a place that provided a few more services, her new neighbors in better health ignored her kind warmth and easy laughter, preferring to spend time with those who did not remind them of life’s unfairness.
Contemporaries, who had no obligations in life other than to fill the time they had, could not bring themselves to spend brief moments brightening someone else’s increasingly isolated days.
Filling a Void
Our family felt anger towards the healthy elderly who seemed clueless about their own lack of kindness. We compensated by doing more for our mom, even as we feared what might be lurking in our own future.
Were we looking in a mirror reflecting what is ahead or at a vestige of what would soon be in the past?
As my mom’s dementia progressed, it was no longer possible for her to live independently, even with support. Her last several years were in a setting that we hoped would never be needed, but which provided the level of care required for her circumstances. Her passing was also classic for her generation. She fell, suffered a broken hip and immediately declined.
As she hovered near death for days, her immediate and extended family stayed by her bed, hoping she could recognize the voices that sustained her through her final years, just as she sustained them in their younger days. Her last breath came during a discussion of the closeness of the families that she, her sister and their loving spouses raised together in a small coastal town.
Since my mom’s passing, I am often asked if I feel relief. It is not an unfair question, after long service in the “sandwich generation.” There is no denying the toll that the years have taken as we tried to bring comfort to mom while she traveled the painful journey from normalcy to the final onslaught of dementia.
I, too, used to wonder if others I observed tending to the needs of aging parents and the demands of their own lives felt relief when their caregiving role diminished. I am learning that relief would be a much simpler alternative to this complex array of sadness, loss and worry for the future.
My conversations in the past weeks with those who have also involuntarily become the oldest living generation have borne a striking similarity. There is no such thing as the “right time” to die. The loss of a parent hurts whether they die young or old, in good health or bad. Losing your last parent is a passage to a phase of life none of us feels ready to accept.
3 Ways Boomers Can Make a Difference
As boomers steel themselves for the seismic shift ahead, we owe it to our own children to think differently than our parents’ generation did as they entered their elder years. In particular, I suggest three ways my boomer colleagues can make a difference in their final decades, just as they did in their earlier years:
1. We cannot turn our backs on those who have transitioned from health to infirmity. Too many in our parents’ generation suffered unnecessary isolation because their decline threatened the emotional well-being of their former friends. We owe it to each other to treat our friends and family members whose health is declining better than that.
2. We should fight fiercely to retain the safety net that has been available to the Depression-era generation. I am deeply grateful for the services that were available for my mom and wonder what services will remain if and when I and others in my family face similar needs. Boomers are the largest generation in history. Our impact on the health care system will be huge and unprecedented. We are in grave danger of not only diminished care, but of leaving to our children a crippled system that will be even more inaccessible to them. We owe them — and ourselves — a better future.
3. We need to reach out to those who have lost an elderly parent and understand that grief is not diminished even as the burden of care has been lifted. Personally, the greatest support I’ve received has come from those who’ve given me permission to feel the sorrow and to be gentle on the demands I make upon myself.
There is a singular comfort that has emerged through this loss. I am reminded that the steadfast love of a parent is a gift that keeps on giving, from one generation to the next.
Our parents’ lives mattered because their love transcends their death, and provides an emotional shelter into which we gather our own children. Their lives were a blessing that deserves our resolve to ensure a better future.