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There's no time like the holidays to have awkward family conversations. This year, friends have been asking me about two of the most difficult topics imaginable: sickness and death. This is because I was a caregiver for my father for 2.5 years until he passed in March, and then again when my mother was unexpectedly hospitalized for three weeks until she passed in October. Two parental deaths in eight months teaches you a lot.
My parents offered the dual gifts of trust and clarity by accepting death as an inevitability for at least as long as it took to draw up and sign power of attorney documents and health care directives. Dad was a smart, stoic North Dakota farmer. Mom was a smart, stubborn fighter. They were both independent to the core and certainly had no intention of needing help, but they knew that some things are beyond sheer will, and they could do worse than to rely on my help.
I was not initially listed as a POA, maybe because I was the daughter and younger child. But Mom and my brother were. It wasn't until a hospitalization when my dad's cellphone stopped functioning that things changed. A week later, I received a new document from our family attorney listing me as an equal POA. Dad had meted out more trust so I could provide the support he knew he needed.
As his illness progressed, Dad introduced me to his accountant and a financial adviser, so I wouldn't be in the dark if something happened. He shared his decisionmaking strategies. As he went through the mail one day last winter, even as dementia had set in, he slid a real estate agent's flyer across the table and said, "In case you need it." He was referring to selling his home.
He once told a hospitalist that I was his manager. He taught me how to give insulin, which I later did when his memory failed him. I had relationships with his care providers, including his primary physician and his oncologist, who made a hospice referral when it was clear the time had come. He watched me and I watched him as we walked the line between safety and autonomy and disease took control.
It was a year ago this month that I tucked him into bed one night and asked if he felt overwhelmed. Even in his failing health he managed to give me a gentle directive of sorts. "It'll be over soon," he said with the covers pulled up. "I just hope it goes smoothly."
Making things go smoothly became my mission as the situation evolved from week to week, day to day, and ultimately hour to hour.
People make comparisons between raising children and caring for aging parents, but it's a false equivalence. To raise children is to prepare them for life ahead. To care for aging parents is to find quality of life while on a journey toward a dignified death. Both are taxing and emotional endeavors with immense rewards. Many people don't recognize the latter, much to their detriment.
I was with Dad during his final days. Neither of us could have imagined how our relationship would evolve, how I would dispense comfort medications for the final 12 hours of his life. My brother and I were both with Mom during her unexpected and chaotic hospitalization, discerning once again the meaning of quality of life and her clearly articulated wishes.
Having an embodied understanding that you've done all you could do provides immense peace. If you're among the aging parents whose children want to help, count yourself lucky. Let them become the people they want to be for you. Have the awkward conversation this holiday. Don't be afraid. Then pass the potatoes and have a good laugh about it all. After all, time spent together is precious. Enjoy it while you can.
Kristi Rendahl is an associate professor and chair of the department of sociology at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is writing a book for adult children who have realized their aging parents need help and don't know where to begin.