Have you ever thought about the duties we have towards our parents when they get older? I’m not talking about legal obligations (which there really aren’t any). I’m talking about moral and ethical responsibilities. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot, especially after realizing just how many things our parents sacrifice to make our lives better when we’re young. Below are ten things I truly believe we owe our parents when they reach their “golden” years.
What Do We Owe Our Parents When They Get Older?
Before we get into the duties we have towards our parents when they get older, I want to share a wonderful quote with you from Tia Walker, co-author of the book The Inspired Caregiver. Tia says, “To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors.” I couldn’t agree more. So, think of the below “duties” as ways of embracing that high honor.
1. Treat them with dignity and respect
First and foremost, treat your parents with the dignity and respect that they deserve. Nearly everything that follows below embodies that duty, but it’s so important that it needs to be clearly stated upfront. Every single person on this earth, from the very young to the very old, deserves to be treated with dignity. While respect, on the other hand, is something that should be earned rather than given freely, I think we can all agree that our parents have more than earned it.
2. Don’t treat them like children
In our society, we tend to treat our elderly like children. If you don’t believe me, the next time you go shopping or to a restaurant, pay attention to how clerks and servers talk to toddlers. Then, listen to the tone they use with elders. All too often, you’ll find that it’s the exact same tone. This is called “infantizing” them, and ethics expert Randall Horton wrote a great post on why it’s so demeaning over on the Huffington Post.
3. Listen to them
Your parents spent, at a minimum, 18 years listening to you (although probably way beyond that). They patiently answered your 10,000 “why” questions when you were a toddler. They showed genuine interest in your utterly fascinating story about a bug you saw on the playground in kindergarten. During your teen years, they listened to you complain (and complain and complain) about everything from unfair teachers to unjust curfews.
Now, it’s your turn to listen to them. Yes, even if they tell you the same story over and over. After all, how many times did they have to hear about that playground bug?
4. Make time for them
We get so busy in our adult lives that we often forget to call home, much less visit regularly. It happens, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad son or daughter. Your parents know that you have a “life of your own” now. Shouldn’t that life include them more, though?
For every time they smile and say, “It’s okay, honey” when you forget their birthday or call late on Mother’s Day, they’re secretly crying inside. We owe our parents time. After all, they gave us nearly every moment of theirs for most of our lives.
5. Advocate for them
From speaking up when a doctor brushes your mom’s medical concerns off as “just part of aging” to voting for candidates that protect the elderly’s interest, advocating basically means standing up for your parents. Remember all those times they stood up for you- to unfair teachers, to bullies, to doctors who blew off your symptoms as “just part of growing up.
If your parents are unable (or unwilling because of the generation they grew up in) to stand up for their own rights, do it for them. The older they get, the more they’ll need you to be their advocate. Parents with dementia especially need you to do this, as their voices tend to get “lost” the most.
6. Learn from them
As far as duties to our parents when they get older go, this one is truly a win-win-win situation. Your parents will love spending time with you. They “win” because they get to teach you secret family recipes, share stories from their past, and just pass on their wisdom. You “win” because you’ll have no regrets when they’re gone. You won’t be kicking yourself for not asking mom how to make her famous sauce or asking dad about his time in the war. Your children and every generation that comes after “wins” because they’ll feel more connected to their family history.
7. Teach them
The flip side of learning from them is, of course, teaching them. We have this misconception that the elderly are like old dogs, in that they can’t learn new “tricks.” Everyone jokes about older people and technology.
Rather than turning grandpa’s lack of Skype abilities into family holiday joke fodder, teach him how to use it. He wants to learn. He wants to keep up with your generation and feel a connection to your passions. Just remember, be patient. He was patient when you were learning how to ride a bike…or worse, drive his car!
8. Make sure they have a place to call home
Out of all the duties we’ve discussed, this is really the only one of a financial nature. However, it’s also among the most important. While we’re not legally obligated to house our parents when they get older, we definitely have a moral obligation to make sure they’re not homeless. If that means letting them live with us, so be it. If they choose to live in a retirement community or nursing home, your job isn’t done. A home is more than just a roof over their head. They deserve a place that’s comfortable and that treats them well.
Sadly, depending on your racial and cultural background, you may need to advocate extra hard to make that happen. A 2013 study found that “elderly Hispanics are more likely than their non-Hispanic white peers to reside in nursing homes that are characterized by severe deficiencies in performance, understaffing, and poor care.”
9. Learning and respecting their wishes
One of the hardest duties that we have towards our parents when they get older is the one that comes near the end- respecting their wishes and letting them go when they ask us to. Hopefully, that’s still a long way off. For now, your duty is to sit down and have an honest talk with them to find out what those wishes are. Please don’t put it off. It’s a tough topic, I know, but it is far better to discuss it now than try to make a purely emotional decision later.
10. Don’t hold it over their heads when we help them
Last, but far from least, you have a duty to live up to all the above obligations without holding it over your parents’ heads. Don’t constantly remind them how much you’re sacrificing by letting them live with you. Don’t act smug or superior when you teach them something new.
Most importantly of all, though, don’t treat them like you’re doing these things for them because you feel like you have to. Our parents aren’t “obligations.” They’re the people who raised us and sacrificed for us. We “owe” them everything. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” Let’s treat them like the treasures and works of art that they are.