5 Ways to Become an Ally for Your Aging Parents

In a long car ride with my musically savvy teenagers, I happily listened to the bands they enjoy most, bands with names like "Vampire Weekend" and "Volcano Choir." I mostly enjoy my kid's taste in music and I certainly enjoy the fact that they have such eclectic favorite bands.

When it came time to play my music, I put on some of my favorite Rock and Roll tunes. My kids think that my music is "sort of cool", and sometimes they tell me that they can relate to it, and understand why it's sustained its popularity for so long. To indulge me, we rocked out to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, and then the Clash.

Actually, the Clash, was never one of my top-ten bands, and if asked to name more than three songs by The Clash, I'd hesitate and probably bow my head in shame. But one song that I find particularly memorable is "Should I Stay or Should I Go". Remember that one?

The song made it's way into Rolling Stone Magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time", and it's a song that I still really like, especially the chorus:

"Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?"

After singing along with the song, and with a long time to go in our car ride, I thought about making connections between that song and the work I do as a consultant to older adults and their families. Going out on a limb, I began to connect the choices I encourage older adults to think about and decide upon, often involving the very question, "should I stay (in my home), or should I go (to assisted living), and so forth. I thought about how this very question is often laden with strong opinions, value judgments, and prolonged struggles within families.

In a course I teach on aging in the 21st Century, my opening lecture is an exploration of the characteristics of four different generations of Americans, from the Silent Generation to the Millenials. We talk about the loyalty - to work, to country, to tradition - of the Silent Generation. We discuss the Baby Boomers, or the "Me Generation", and the (perhaps overly) confident Generation Me, the Millenials and my generation, Generation X, which actually comes before the Millenials. Gen X-ers however, tend to recede into the background, sandwiched between the two larger and more outspoken generations before and after us.

Who are Gen-X-ers, and how will we face the aging of our parents? And how will we address the enduring question the Clash first posed when we were teens - "should I stay or should I go," as it relates to our own parents and older loved ones?

Born between 1965-1980, Gen-Xers were the kids whose parents who were divorcing at a rate previously unseen in America. We were the latchkey kids finding our way home after school and helping ourselves to peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate milk. We were the first kids to have home computers and the first teens to become addicted to technology, playing endless games of Pacman, Pong and Donkey Kong. Ultimately we found our way in society, and we're making our individual and collective mark in thoughtful, independent and subtle ways characteristic of our generation. Now, in the midst of our lives, as we juggle parenting our tech-addicted kids, our mid-career issues and midlife crises, and our concern about the crazy world we are leaving for our children, we are also thinking about our aging parents. And one of the major themes for our parent's generation is housing - should they stay or should they go?

Assisted living, aging in place, warnings about Medicare, the cost of homecare, purchasing long-term care insurance, and Social Security woes are topics that increasingly creep into our conversations. The older our parents become, the more we think about how best to help them navigate through these systems.

So how do we approach these topics with our parents, in our own distinctive Gen-X way? What can we bring from our life experience to guide us through this phase?

Here's what I've boiled down into my top five pieces of advice for Gen-Xers to help our parents age well:

1. When we were growing up, many of us felt that we needed to slow our parents down to get them to listen to us. Now it's our turn to slow ourselves down for them. Despite our incredibly busy schedules with kids, jobs and relationships, we need to sit down with our parents, and ask them questions about their aging. Where they want to live, how will they pay for care, and how we might be able to help.

2. Rather than trying to parent our parents, we need to become their allies. Rather than imposing our advice on them, we can offer advice, if they ask. They may struggle for a while, as we did, trying to fit the key in the door or deal with the smoke alarm when it went off and we were home alone. Our parents will decide when to get help and how much help they need. We might disagree with their decisions, but they are entitled to make those decisions, and we need to be there to stand with them when they decide.

3. As the first tech savvy generation with children born into a world where they take mobile phones for granted, we need to help our parents stay connected technologically. We can teach them to use Skype to read our kids bedtime stories, or download an app to record their daily exercise or to purchase a fob to keep track of keys and glasses.

4. Our job is to trust our parents and their decision making. Listening is not enough. Just as they trusted us to find our way home after school, we need to trust our parents to lead these conversations about planning for their future, and trust their decision making capability. Remember that they have had a lot of practice in making very important decisions throughout their lives, and they've likely gotten very good at it.

5. Most people over a certain age are frightened of dementia and for good reason. Almost 50% of adults over the age of 85 have some sort of cognitive impairment. Have a talk with your parents about illnesses that cause dementia. Ask them what they would like should they develop a cognitive impairment. At what point they might accept your help or a paid caregiver's help. How will they pay for the help? Have they thought about where they would like to be cared for? If you think that your parent already has a cognitive impairment, approach them directly and encourage them to seek medical advice. The first step in diagnosing a cognitive impairment is having a medical exam by a trusted physician.

As we age and and our parents age, issues like cognitive impairment, healthcare crises, and struggles about accepting help, might emerge. Fellow Gen X'ers, it's time to show our resourcefulness, our flexibility and our resilience to stand with our parents as they and we figure out how to proceed from a point of strength and dignity.