How to be an aging parent

Over the years I have often written about the relationship between parents and their adult children. In fact, one of my earliest columns, which I wrote back in 1985 when I was 42, is titled “Solving the Parent Problem.” In it I said that while we may describe our own parents as difficult (if not impossible) to be with, our friends don’t see them that way. They find them intelligent, funny, and even charming. So I suggested that we early middle-agers have a “parent exchange program,” where, on visits, our parents stay with our friends and their parents stay with us.

Eleven years later, realizing that my idea had not yet taken off, I wrote, “There is only one truly satisfactory way to deal with your aging parents: Die young.”

Nearly eight years after that, I tried to give more practical advice, based on observations about what seemed to have worked best for me and my mother, may she rest in peace. I talked about the “four-day rule,” which states, “As an adult child, never allow a visit to or from a parent to last more than four days.”


But a funny thing happened on my way to the grave: I became an aging parent. Almost overnight, it seems, everything has changed. The shoe, or more likely the slipper, is now on the other foot. Now, when my wife and I plan a visit to our adult children spread out over a week or 10 days, I will get an e-mail from at least one of them saying, “Hey, Dad, what about the four-day rule?”

Since time began, aging parents have tried to get a grip on their once cute children. This was codified in the Commandment which reads, “Honor they father and mother.” A valiant attempt by our Biblical forbears, but, unless by honoring they meant an e-mail now and then, it has clearly failed. Elders talk all the time about the difficulties they have with their grown children, as shown by such sayings as “Little children, little problems,” and jokes like this one:

Two elderly women are seated on a bench in Florida, and one says to the other, “Do you have children?” “No,” replies the second woman, to which the first says, “So what do you do for aggravation?”

Okay, there’s all this humor, but the reality is, How can you be the best aging parent you can be? There are books on this, but I wonder how helpful they actually are. One title I found is How to Really Love Your Adult Child. I have no trouble really loving my adult children; that’s easy. It’s trying not to say the wrong thing that can be hard.

But with my children ranging in age from 31 to 47, I have had a lot of experience and would like to share some of what I have learned. Of course, before I start, since I know one or more of my children could be reading this, please remember that this is a humor column, and everything I say here could be taken with a grain of salt, which reminds me, there was just something on the news about how salt can be bad for you, so listen, guys, please start watching your salt intake if you haven’t already. Oh yes, back to those suggestions for being the best parent you can be as your children head toward their prime and you fade into the sunset:

1. Never send an e-mail to your adult child without reading it over at least three times and then checking with your spouse to make sure she or he thinks it’s okay.

2. Remember that your children are busy. They are not retired. They may have small children of their own. They love you very much, but they have no time for you.

3. Avoid the temptation to say, “You know, I won’t be around forever.” You may think this will get your adult children to think about spending more time with you, but it will probably get them thinking about what you may be leaving them in your will.

4. Yes, yes, I know, your kids are raising their kids all wrong. They are overly permissive or they are too restrictive, or they are helicopter parents, or they are letting their children — your grandchildren — do dangerous things, or they are holding them back too much. But you’d be best off following the advice of an older friend of mine, a grandfather of six, who said to me when I was about to become a grandfather for the first time, “Remember this: Zip your lip.”

5. That “zip your lip” line is an understatement when it comes to your child’s spouse or partner.

6. If you can afford it, sending money is always a good idea.

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