Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that the bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone. At the core of this message are two sensibilities of regret and action, for caring for a parent on the brink of death requires reflection and intentional obedience to God—a dependency on Him alone as we are reminded that love and sacrifice are synonymous forces of compassion, despite its discomfort.
That discomfort is what award-winning author and storyteller Cynthia Ruchti reflects upon in her new book, As My Parents Age (public library). She understands that God will not call us to a task that requires us to neglect what He’s already assigned to us.
Drawing on her experience as a daughter with parents undergoing a decline in their health, Ruchti writes of her dad: “He lived ready, as if perpetually on call—the ultimate call. No unfinished business. No unspoken words of encouragement. No unexpressed love. He wanted the focus on eternity, not on a used-up shell of a body.”
Writing about instances in which parents won’t have the hard conversations with their children, Ruchti speaks to those who avoid discussing death and admonishes them to think differently about it: “Some families find it awkward to discuss funeral plans, financial decisions, who gets what, and preferred casket lining, burial plots, or ash-scattering locations. Our family considered it a gift that we didn’t have to wonder how to honor our parents. They’d told us their wishes ahead of time.”
When we talk to our elderly parents about their final days, it’s not a morbid thing or a bad omen. It’s preparedness for a peaceful departing. And peace is too compelling a prize to pass up, even if we may hold on to well-deserved resentments towards our parents. The most viable option, in this case, is to love and forgive old hurts that are hard to let go of for we know God holds reconciliation high on his list of priorities.
Such occasions, therefore, become tests of forbearance and compassion for how willing we are to extend grace to our aging parents. The testing ground for this is especially palpable when our parents are in denial about their mental, physical and emotional decline. Ruchti writes:
In aging issues as in other areas, truth expressed with a sledgehammer may shock us into reality but do irreparable damage. Truth expressed in love—there it is again—is what convinces us of our need for a Savior in Jesus…and can also serve as the conduit for conversations with aging parents teetering between denial and resistance… Love intervenes, but without pride, an ‘I told you so,’ or condescension. Love and respect working in tandem can minimize collateral damage when a parent camps on the banks of denial.
Making allowances for aging parents to be in denial may be fine to an extent because a reality check won’t change anything for the better. But this is not to be confused with necessary reality checks that are warranted. Ruchti adds:
As our parents age, logic and efficiency wrestle with concepts like kindness and does-it-really-matter? If he believes he’s younger than he is, does it really matter? If she’s convinced her sister is still alive, what does it help to prove the hard truth? Will it change anything for the better? On the other hand, if octogenarian Dad thinks he can still climb roofs and clean chimneys against doctor’s orders—when his life or other lives are at stake—a reality check may be truly necessary.
Ruchti examines the byproduct of denial, unwise decision-making. She considers the feelings of hopelessness and the struggle children of aging parents go through as they witness their parents’ careless choices. She writes:
How aging parents invest their money, their time, and their affections matter to us because we care about their future—however long or short—and their health and happiness. A healthy parent-child relationship establishes a level of trust that comes into play when our parents’ decision-making abilities falter… In some families, the word impossible laces many conversations: ‘The choices Dad and Mom are making frighten me, but they won’t listen. What am I going to do? I don’t want to see them hurt or taken advantage of. It’s impossible.’
Ruchti considers the effects poor decisions from parents have on their children, and not just as they age, but from the onset of childhood. It is no surprise that trust issues are very apparent between the adult child and aging parent which took root in the past, causing the relationship to become strained over time. Guilt may ensure and taint the relationship between parent and child, like a tattered rag we try to throw out and a dog keeps bringing it back. Ruchti recounts the testimony of a man named Stephen. She writes:
Stephen bore endless regrets about his relationship with his estranged father. He’d tried many times to reconcile over the years. Eventually Stephen stopped trying. How much battering could his pride take? He hoped age might soften his father’s heart, that forgiveness would come easier to the old man as his life drew closer to its end. But instead the hardwood of his heart petrified. And his ability to communicate was the first of his functions to leave.
The efforts to make amends with an aging parent may eventually stop through the course of time after rejection and defeat repeat itself like a vicious cycle. But Ruchti takes us back to the core message of the gospel: love. God makes provision in His word for dealing with guilt:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Psalm 51 : 1-2
We need to turn to God in our moments of guilt just as the psalmist David did. The comfort of God’s word is a balm not only to our soul but to our hands swollen with grace. As parents age, we may not like them or recognize who they are becoming. They may have been experts at making us feel miserable, but we don’t need to respond in kind as we mature alongside them. With a keen awareness and sensibility for these sentiments towards aging parents, Ruchti observes:
Gregarious parents who become reclusive, cultured and proper parents who grow sloppy and coarse with age, kinds parents who become cruel or the courageous who become timid or the strong who grow frail… “Are you really my mother? My father? I hardly recognize you…How can we focus on and preserve their true legacy rather than the shadow of who they once were, or an illness-and age-shaped imitation of the real thing?
How do children think good of their aging parents, considering all the transformations they are experiencing?
It becomes a choice then, like love is. We choose to love and to do right by someone. The choice is made daily to love, and likewise, the ugly and unrecognizable faces and habits of our aging parents need to slide off like water on a duck’s back. We may not like who our parents are becoming in their old age, but we need to apply a filter—call it putting on the rose-tinted glasses—and watch them through that lens…just for a moment.
Our parents’ aging may start small or catastrophically. Someone said, “The four saddest words: she doesn’t remember me.” This resonates with those of us who have parents aging into dementia. Ruchti describes:
For too high a percentage of us, dementia will get in the way of love. At its most severe and harsh, it steals even the recognition of who we are and that we were ever important to our parents or grandparents.
It is futile to manufacture memory recollections with our parents suffering from dementia by reminding them of an experience we shared together. Likewise, we don’t need to run for the hills when our parent believes they are in a different place or that you are a different person, unrecognizable to them. We easily pretend to play at tea-time with the toddlers in our life, or we can cope in the middle of a conversation between two people who are speaking a different language. Why then can’t we step into the forgotten world of our parents’ imagination or distant recollection? Let’s risk stepping into their reality for a while for we serve a higher purpose when we do. Ruchti explains:
If mom needs to nap before her piano recital, what purpose is served by telling her it’s a ridiculous notion? If Dad insists he won a golf tournament the day before, although he hasn’t left the assisted living facility in two years, who are we to insist the he didn’t? And what purpose does it serve?
The discomfort of visiting and beholding our aging parents’ deterioration deepens our pain and our understanding. When our parents age, we are meant to change also. No child can watch a parent age and be the same person. Ruchti writes:
Watching our parents show signs of aging shifts our thinking about the length of the dash of life, the space between date of birth and date of death… My mom’s strong will had been forged. It wasn’t a character flaw. It had been hammered on an anvil of life events that would have flattened most of us.
We need to be changed in powerful ways as we see our parents age. A friend of Ruchti recounts a moment with her ailing father:
He whispers his gratitude for every small kindness, as if he’s waited all his life for someone to care about his needs, as if he’s forgotten the years and tears and sleepless nights he invested in caring for me. His tenderness slays me. It slices me open to lay bare a history of my harshness and irritation with him, holidays I thought were too full to fit in a cross-country trip to visit him, countless invitations to go fishing with him that I turned down to hang with friends whose names I no longer remember.
We need to reflect—as our parents do on their last dash—on those moments in life that were all vanity, that served no eternal purpose only so we can offer our loving attention to that which matters most in the present: love. We need to allow ourselves to be moved by the condition of their bodies, their minds, and souls, and ask God to renew our mind and our thinking about the state of our relationship with our parent who needs us most in this last dash.
William Shakespeare wrote: “When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry.” As aging parents regress, they take on the role we once had as children. We switch into their place as the caregiver. When this shift in positions of identity becomes ever present, we need to wait on God. If we don’t know what to say to an aging parent, we just need to sit quietly and wait for the Spirit to fill in the gap. We can learn a lot from our parents when the ease of stress is carried by other shoulders. Ruchti gently reminds her readers:
With our mouths, we say ‘Anything for you, Jesus.’ But when he asks, ‘Will you visit Me in the nursing home?’ we retreat into, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t understand the question.’
As My Parents Age is a revealing read in its entirety. The thoughts shared are raw and sobering, convicting to the soul and compelling to the heart. This is truly a message of love and devotion and one that many don’t get to read until it’s too late. It’s a cautionary tale from many who have walked through life, regretful and sorrowful, but it is one that we’ll all need to walk at one point—whether we are children of aging parents or are soon to be on our last dash. Follow Ruchti’s Pinterest board where you will find a wealth of information on this topic.