Mindy Greenstein Ph.D.

The Flip Side

The Evening of Life: A Question for Adult Children of Aging Parents

Older age and the quantity versus quality question.

Posted Aug 14, 2011

For a long time, I felt like a henchman, an emotional assassin hired by my mother to keep my father in line.  He's 88 and she's 76, and she wants him around as long as possible. "He wants to eat latkes! Tell him to stop!!!" My father has diabetes, and deep fried potato latkes are not exactly what the doctor ordered. So, I dutifully call my father and tell him to stop acting like a child, and stop hocking ma about the latkes already. (All the while, of course, I'd happily down a yodel or devil dog myself.)

            But is that the right thing to do? What's interesting is that, for a long time, it didn't even occur to me to ask the question. Until I started working with one of my mentors on a book about aging. Not only does she see many patients in their 80's, even 90's, she herself is in her 80's. One night while we were working together, I got another one of those calls from my mother. My father's sugar count was up again. He'd visited a friend and had eaten cookies! Time for another scream-call from me. Not so fast, this time.

            Jimmie, my colleague, asked why I needed to yell at my father on my mother's behalf. I explained to her that I always had to yell because my father's hearing was so bad.

            "No, that's not what I meant. Why do you have to say anything at all? So what if he has a cookie?"

            "His sugar level goes through the roof."

            "So what if his sugar level goes through the roof?"

            I was honestly mystified. What was she saying?

            "He's not going to live forever, you know. So what if his sugar level goes up?"

There, she said it. It still took a while for me to understand. She told me the joke about the old guy who went to the doctor and asked what he could do to live longer. The doc said, "Well, you can give up alcohol, smoking, and women. You may not live longer, but it will SEEM longer."

What she was pointing out was my own bias; I assumed the best thing for my father was as much quantity of life as possible, and that I needed to use my authority with him to keep him in line to do the healthier thing.  It suddenly occurred to me that I should be thinking less about his sugar count and more about his quality of life. And, besides, what did I really have control over when it came to my parents' lives? More important, what should I have control over? I started asking questions I didn't like the answer to.

            Like, what was he doing all day.

            The answer was: hardly anything, since his poor vision and hearing made it hard to enjoy much. I had recently published a book about how people cope with crisis, some of which I had interviewed them for, about their Holocaust experiences. He was reading it a tiny bit, holding a magnifying glass up to the text to read. It quickly tired him out. None of the gizmos I'd found for him had worked. He watched a lot of TV, whatever he could make of it, and then he slept a lot.

            Jimmie was right - eating another latke was the least of his problems. So, what could I do to help?

            For one, I gave him a gift that an elderly woman had told me was a lifesaver for her—a Kindle DX, which had a larger font that he could read more easily, sometimes even without the magnifying glass. He started reading my book again. He even found some errors. I had written that his family had owned a dry goods store back in Poland, when, in fact, it had been a yard goods store. There was a typo in the number of kilometers he'd had to travel from his yeshiva to his home after the Nazis bombed the railroads. So, I gave him an editorial job—he was to collect errata for the next edition (if there was ever going to be one).

            I called home more often. It didn't matter if we had nothing to talk about. A call was an activity. My kids called. I restarted an old book project about my parents' and my childhoods - I needed interviews again.  Stories about the old country, about my baby years, etc. Sometimes, I visit him in Brooklyn with my tape recorder (okay, Ipad, but tape recorder still sounds more natural to my middle aged years), sometimes he treks up here for his interviews, so it's easier to see the grandchildren, and because traveling is something to do, and he won't do it without a purpose, but now he has a purpose.  He's passing on vital information without knowing it, about the life of a community that was all but snuffed out, about how we cope with adversity, even if that adversity is plain old old age.  Rather than keeping track of his sugar count, I try to help him achieve one of the developmental tasks of older adulthood.  This one was named by George Vaillant—"Keeper of meaning," a time for acting as a bridge for the next generations to learn about the values of beloved communities and institutions.

            When I mention Jimmie's latke question to my mother, she doesn't understand. All she knows is she wants her husband around as long as possible, and her efforts get many gold stars from his doctor.  But I don't take too many emotional assassin jobs anymore, even though I'm still not sure what the answer to Jimmie's question is—my father doesn't want to die any time soon, and my mother doesn't want to be left alone; and if laying off the deep fried and sugar will keep him around longer, so be it. But on the other hand, as long as my dad's alive, who can fault him for actually wanting to live.

* Click here for my new book (one of O: The Oprah Magazine's 10 Titles to Pick Up in May; with Foreword by NY Times columnist David Brooks): The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities —about the sad, hilarious and meaningful ways we deal with the crises in our lives.