The Grief and Terror of Realizing Your Parents Are Aging
The shift from “my parents are healthy and indestructible” to talking about mortality on the drive back from Costco feels crazy.
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I don’t remember what my mom and I were talking about when, during a drive through the Pennsylvania suburbs last summer, she announced where she wants to have her ashes scattered. (I do remember actively fighting the urge to do a barrel roll out of her Toyota.)
Don’t worry, as I immediately did: She’s not dying. She doesn’t have a terminal illness. I don’t even really think of her as old—and I’m not just saying in an attempt at flattery, should she read this someday.
She is, however, both thoughtful and practical. This was a thoughtful, practical thing to discuss. And I’m aware, of course—more acutely so following our car-ride conversation—that she’s getting older. This is a strange thing to reckon with when you’re in your mid-twenties, still trying, with varying degrees of success, to cruise into adulthood yourself.
Stephanie Krauthammer-Ewing is a clinical and developmental psychologist at Drexel University, where her research focuses on “healthy emotional development in childhood and adolescence, as well as the impact of caregiving and attachment relationships on emotional development.” She says that in human development studies, our twenties and thirties are on the early side when it comes to facing this shift from “my parents are healthy and vital and indestructible” to “talking about mortality on the drive back from Costco.”
In previous generations, it happened to people who were in their 30s and 40s. There’s even a name for it—the “sandwich” generation—a term coined by social worker Dorothy Miller in 1981 to describe those whose own kids and aging parents needed their attention, making them simultaneous caregivers to both. “But it may be now, since the age of having first children has gone up in our culture…that people are having to experience that at earlier ages,” Krauthammer-Ewing says. And it’s a realization and eventual transition that can be hugely stressful, in more ways than one.
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Feelings of anxiety are fairly common during this stage, says Rachel Annunziato, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Fordham University. It can complicate sibling dynamics—there’s the division of responsibilities, where tension and resentment that can come into play, and expectations on both sides can exacerbate that anxiety. At 41, Annunziato is actually going through this exact transition herself. (“And I live right by my parents too, which makes it a constant reminder as well,” she says. “Watching them aging—I think about this a lot.”)
Aside from anxiety, there’s often an element of avoidance that arises as a coping mechanism, Annunziato tells me, which involves thoughts like, I don't really need to deal with this right now or There’s nothing I can really do.
There are other external stressors, too. Krauthammer-Ewing notes that regardless of where you are in your own life cycle—whether you’re 40 with a family and a stable career or a twentysomething journalist whose financial future is comparatively less certain (hello)—the realization that your parents are aging can lead to dollar-sign anxiety. Does mom have solid enough health insurance to cover her in case she gets sick—or if she is already? What’s it going to look like if dad has to move into a retirement home or needs more extensive care? “And you want them to have the best, because they’re your parent—all of that comes with a really heavy price tag in our culture,” Krauthammer-Ewing says. “Are you, as a child stepping into this caregiver role, going to be able to fill in the gaps?”
Time—or lack thereof—can be another source of stress. Researching retirement options that will be the best match for your parents, checking in with them about their healthcare and living needs (“Did you remember to take your cholesterol medication? Did dad make it to the dentist for that appointment?”)—all of it takes time.
Then, there’s the concept of loss, with its many layers. “I think there’s somewhat of a grief process that goes on,” Krauthammer-Ewing adds. “Grief is about loss, and you’re losing that role, in some ways, of being 'the taken care of' and moving into the caretaker role.” There’s a sometimes-jarring moment of “I’m not the kid anymore” that can correspond with the realization that they’ll grow to be more dependent on you. And you’re facing their mortality—even if it’s not so dire as all that just yet—which in turn makes you think about your own mortality, a deep, existential way that can be overwhelming.
Here’s another way in which this is all more complicated for millennials: Now, a lot of the time, we’re coping with this in isolation. One-child families are becoming more and more common, and if you’re an only child whose parents don’t have a large network of siblings and cousins, you might be the only person shouldering the burden. And Annunziato notes that millennials don’t get married until much later (if at all), so you might not have a partner to share your worries or concerns with, either.
But if this shift of roles is happening for you, examining it in a safe space—with someone you trust or in therapy—is way better than running away from it. “Counseling can be really useful,” Krauthammer-Ewing says. Processing your feelings, rather than blocking them out, is crucial. Go at your own pace, and Annunziato says it’s important to reflect on your experiences and take care of yourself along the way. Find social support where you can, and take time to be with people outside of your own family who can share their insight or at least lend an ear.
“I would advise folks to try to start addressing this head-on, try to start having conversations with your parents or your siblings,” Annunziato says. Talking now about those touchy financial considerations, who will take on what role—and, yes, what we should do with your ashes when you’re gone—will make the inevitable less jarring when it happens. Unpack it in whatever way feels comfortable for your family dynamic. And add a little humor in wherever you can.
“My parents were joking with us that my sister would take their dog and I would take them,” Annunziato laughs. “It was kind of funny, but it was like, this is good. We need to have those conversations with all of us together. I think as you talk about it, it gets easier. And certainly, the preparedness for this eventual transition improves.”
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