How To Strengthen Ties with Aging Parents

Written by Kyle Noone

The past, hurt feelings or non-communicative parents can hinder your attempts at strenghthening and understanding your relationship with aging parents. 

Throughout the last year of her mother's life, Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist and an expert on generational relationships, felt guilty.

If she was caring for her sick mom, she wasn't tending to her own family. If she was with her kids, mom was alone in a hospital three hours away. When she was working, neither got any attention. She spent the year tired, anxious and sad. Then her mom passed away.

"By the time she died, I felt a weird combination of being stressed to my limits and ashamed I hadn't done more," writes Pipher in her book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders.

Mary Pipher offers suggestions to foster better relationships between grandparents and grandkids.
Be inventive: One grandma tapes herself reading a new story every week and sends it to her grandkid.
Establish a routine: Set up a regular time during the week when you put in a call to grandma or grandpa.
Get techie: The e-mail and the Internet make instant connections as easy as point, click and type.
Get outta town: Pipher is a firm believer in sending the kids to live with the grandparents every summer or vice versa.
Aging and inevitable loss of a parent is a common thread through our generation. Watching parents age and eventually die can be a profound reminder of one's own mortality. Reconnect with them, says Pipher, and you'll have a guide toward a deeper understanding of what awaits as you gray around the temples.

"Gain insight on your parents and you gain insight on yourself," says Pipher, a clinical psychologist and the author of Reviving Ophelia, her bestselling and insightful book about adolescent girls in America.

When they strengthen relationships with elders, adult children learn how to accept their own fragility, a thought that no longer feels so scary, notes Pipher. While doing research for her book, she recalls bonding with an elderly woman suffering from cancer.

Though terminal, she was so strong and brave, yet unassuming. "She manages to be honest and open about it, but does not have it define her," says Pipher. " I want to remember how this woman handled this."

Fostering strong intergenerational relationships, even with elders who aren't related to you, is also a way to absorb irreplaceable knowledge and traditions. "You really miss a learning opportunity if you don't spend time with people of all ages," she says.

And although today's cultural trends tend to center on the "me" philosophy, some families discover that caring for elders enriches life in a totally unselfish way. "Our generation has been given a lot of training on how satisfying it is to meet our own needs," reflects Pipher. "We haven't been given a lot of training on how satisfying is to take care of other people."

Once you decide to take the focus off yourself, says Pipher, "You'll feel proud that you've done something important for other people."

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Mary Pipher has several suggestions for building better relationships with your aging to build strong relationships with aging parents

1. Take a lot of time: "If you're in a hurry, older people are so polite they won't want to take your time," she advises. Convey a relaxed attitude toward time, and the older generation will be more likely to open up.

2. Touch: Older generations are neglected when it comes to hugs or pats on the back.  "That generation likes getting touched," Pipher says. Holding hands, a gentle arm around the shoulders, goes along way. Not only does it put them at ease and show that you care, but it gives them that much craved human touch that may have all but disappeared from their life.

3. Ask specific questions about the past: "If you just say, `Tell me what you were like when you were young,' they are likely to say a couple of things and clam up." Instead, Pipher advises, ask pointed questions about specific things in their life. What kind of car did your family drive when you were young and they will expound on many details.

4. Bring in old pictures: Like asking specific questions, a picture is worth a thousand words. Imagery sparks memory, and an old picture of when they were younger provides a jumping-off place for hours of discussion.

5. Letters, maps and videos . . . oh, my: An old love letter, a map of a country they traveled, a video of their favorite Bing Crosby/Bob Hope flick, all these are classic conversation starters that provide insight to a time long past.

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