Several people have written in about how complex it is to be asked to care for an aging parent who has been, and continues to be, difficult. One woman expressed her anguish this way, “My mother is now and always has been self-centered and hard to live with. Now she is old and miserable to be around. I don’t want to put my self into that toxic situation.” Another writes about her 83 yr old mother who is a recovering alcoholic. “It is still hard for me – the feelings I have carried of the neglect and abuse I went through as a child. I try not to focus on what she did or didn’t do but on what I can do for myself.” When your parent has not been there for you growing up, how do you come to terms with comforting them in their old age? How do you protect yourself and honor your own needs while doing what you think is appropriate to ease their pain? You may be struggling with these questions yourself or have an easier time setting boundaries. As you look back over your parents’ lives, consider what positives are there and what you want to carry forward from them.

As a Baby Boomer member of the Sandwich Generation, perhaps you have already had talks with your aging parents about their wills, beneficiaries, and advanced medical directives for hospital care. But have you discussed an ethical will or the legacy of meaning they wish to leave behind? As parents grow older, it becomes more important to them to be remembered for the life lessons they taught than for the material gifts they leave behind.

Rachel remembers her first experience with just such a legacy. “My mother-in-law was a wise woman. Although she wasn’t able to continue her education beyond high school, her understanding of people rivaled that of any psychologist. She raised my husband, a sickly boy, to be self-confident and to strive for the best. She gave all of her grandchildren unconditional love and support. And she never questioned my place in our family. But I think her wisdom was most valuable to all of the family after she learned that her cancer had metastasized. Before she died, she had long private talks with each one of us, never shying away from the truth, even with her grandchildren. She wanted to leave a lasting personal legacy with every member of her family and a final expression of her love for each of us. I am still strengthened by the memory of my final talk with her, even today.”

What can you do to help create a legacy of meaning within your own family? Try this to get started and we’ll talk about some more ideas next week:

Spend quality time talking with your parents about the values that are important to them. Ask them specific questions about what ethics have guided them through the years. You probably know some of these answers from having observed them and their role modeling, but the conversations can be further enlightening. As Mimi cared for her mom when she was at the end stages of heart failure, they had long conversations deep into the night. Mimi grew to appreciate her mother as never before. “I used to criticize her for being so frugal. I now realize she was afraid she wouldn’t have enough money to survive. I decided to use the small inheritance she managed to save for me in a way she would appreciate. I’ve opened college bank accounts for the children of my brother, who is struggling financially. I am proud that I can honor my mom in this way.”

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