The challenges of growing old in the 21st century


In the previous two columns dealing with this subject (March 27 and Feb. 13), I specifically addressed some of the practical actions and preparations a senior and their family can take to lessen the inevitable challenges “before” and “during” the death of a parent. In today’s column I want to focus on how to handle the actual death experience, and the circumstances that follow.

As I noted in my first column on this issue, it was estimated that at least 1.7 million Americans age 65 and older would die in 2008, and an equal or larger number in 2009. If only half of these older Americans leave behind three children (many will leave more), almost 3 million adults will be without parents in the United States this coming year.

Inevitably, everyone reading this column has (or will) experience the death of a parent, and how we prepare for that event will in large part determine its impact on our lives. Of course, there is a sense in which one is never completely prepared for the death of a loved one, but in the case of our parents, we know that as we grow older that prospect becomes more imminent and real.

Perhaps, the most difficult aspect of a parent’s death is when it occurs suddenly, without time to prepare. Whether by accident, a physiological malfunction, or some unforeseen circumstance, we’re just not ready. In fact, depending on our relationship with our parent, their sudden death can be one of the most devastating and challenging things that can happen to you. If your parent dies suddenly or violently, coping is even harder. There is no time to prepare together. For the first day and night it is better to not be alone. Try to stay with the other parent, a brother or sister, or a close relative or friend. And recognize that there will be a flood of emotions, and even some internal confusion, for a period of time.

Now, having said that, and assuming we’ve taken all of the necessary “steps” (as I’ve outlined them in the previous two columns), and we’ve been able to establish a reasonable degree of closure and understanding with our parent, we now have to face the details of mortuary and burial arrangements … a service (if one is planned) … and eventually … the disposition of assets (and in some cases — liabilities) of the deceased.

It’s not my intention to prescribe the details involved in each of these activities, but merely to remind us that there are such responsibilities and actions. And … to the degree that we are prepared … we can more effectively transition through these necessary tasks.

However, what I do want to address is often one of the most contentious and divisive issues facing the surviving children of deceased parents, and that is … who gets what? Even if there’s a will, and the parent’s wishes were very explicit, too often that isn’t sufficient to stem the expectations and selfishness that ensues. Now that Mom and Dad are gone, it’s like adults suddenly become little children again, and they simply “want their way, and they want it now!”

As Jo Myers, the author of “Good to Go: The ABC’s of Death and Dying,” observes: “People can accumulate a mountain of possessions or wealth during a lifetime. If gifts are not made before death, look out for the circling buzzards. Some families hire security guards for their home during a memorial service for protection against thieves, including family members.”

Myers then goes on to relate an incident shared by a coroner in her community. He tells this story … “The family was at the funeral and as the casket was lowered into the ground, a group of family members sped back to the decedent’s home where they broke in and started stealing things. The burglar alarm was turned on, so the police showed up as these people were carrying stuff out of the house. One person was hiding silverware in her thigh-high stockings with a silver tray crammed in her backside waistband. The cops made them all disrobe on the front lawn.”

Myers concludes, “A sense of entitlement, need, or intense desire may override a person’s normal tendencies if he or she is tempted with material or monetary windfall. Posturing might begin long before a life ends.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. And fortunately, for many families, it isn’t, but it does take commitment and effort to successfully work through the challenges that will come when mom and dad are gone.

Carl R. Johnson is the community relations director at Abiding HomeCare in Silverdale.

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