Ten Gifts For Our Children

(This article is one of my favorites that I wrote to be published in Meridian Magazine. You can read it online HERE.)
With Christmas just a month back, it’s easy to remember the gifts we both gave and received with so much love.

Just as important and lovely as those gifts were, there are far more important gifts that those of us who are senior citizens can  to our children and grandchildren now and over the next few years.  These gifts may render far happier relationships and memories than any tangible gift in a box or inheritance money.

Of what gifts am I speaking? The gifts of actively preparing for our own senior years when we become dependent upon our children.

Most of us over 65 either currently are, have been or will soon experience the opportunity of serving aging parents.  It’s not until you’re walking the walk of these years with a senior parent(s) that the beautiful rewards and the frustrating challenges present themselves.

Over the past 10-15 years we’ve watched too many families come apart at the seams as siblings care for their parents in their last years of mortality.  These are wonderful people with common values, yet the gap of how to proceed with our aging parents is often heartbreaking!  Old sibling rivalries and relationships bubble up with resentments and judgments that require forgiveness, patience and vision.  Sometimes it takes years to recover.  Some families never do.

So much heartache within these difficult years could be different with some forethought and guided conversations.  Calm conversations that include everyone, (parents and grown children,) well ahead of the days when illness or declining abilities dictate lifestyle changes can be game changers! These are best when everyone is rested, not hungry, and planning on the topics at hand.  FACT: We want to end our lives with our grown children still liking us — and each other!  If they are to be our key supporters, we need them to be our friends. It’s a gift to let them see that we have actively prepared for these years! This early preparation and these peaceful discussions about the future – long before it arrives – can generate much good will and many strong bonds between everyone!

So, here we go!

1: A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE AND MINDSET: First and foremost, we can mitigate health challenges and greatly extend our years of independence simply by taking care of our health now. Making our personal health a top priority is a huge long-term gift to give our children and their families! Studying up on what to expect and how to address it can also be a rich and rewarding part of life. My husband and I highly recommend the book: “How Not to Die” by Dr. Michael Greger.  We often read sections out loud and have adopted many of his health habits, which means new recipes and fun things to eat. Being actively engaged in our health can be very rewarding and a gift to ourselves, which extends to our kids.

2:  EXERCISE for strength, retaining muscle mass, mobility and better sleep.  Exercise helps prevent weight gain and brightens our mood and emotional stability.  It keeps us flexible so we can get in and out of cars, beds, manage stairs, get to the bathroom alone, etc.  Finding a FUN exercise that we’ll actually do makes it easier to maintain.  Walking every day is often the easiest and most convenient exercise.

3: EAT HEALTHFULLY for improved energy, clarity, weight management, improved health, prevention and management of osteoporosis, chronic disease, etc.  Giving up refined sugar and “empty calories” is also an excellent example/legacy/gift to pass on to our children and grandchildren.

4:  WRITE A LETTER TO OUR CHILDREN THAT WE WILL BE GRACIOUS WITH A LISTENING EAR WHEN THEY SEE US START TO DECLINE.  We can let them know that when they start to worry about our driving abilities, choice of footwear, using canes and walkers, independence at home, cooking, bathing and clothing needs etc., we will listen and not become defensive!   Agreeing to have these conversations long before our life skills start to deteriorate can be a blessing for all!!!

Decide ahead of time what key indicators will tell everyone, including us, that, for example, “it’s time for Mom to stop cooking at home.”

My husband and I watched as one of our moms graciously relinquished her many pretty shoes for her sturdy, lace-up “old lady shoes” and got a cane – at her doctor’s advice.  The other pretended it wasn’t a problem and we all lived in fear of her slipping and falling.

Which parent do you want to be? What conversations do you want to have? How much drama do you want to create between your children as these needs evolve? Now’s the time to decide.

It may not be a bad idea to write it out and make written agreements about how you will determine declines and readiness including independent testing from the DMV, doctor’s evaluations, etc. Then we’ll all have something to work from when the time comes.

Perhaps the most important part of this is driving.  No one wants to give up their independence here.   I wish there were laws requiring driving tests (including vision and reflex testing) at age 75, 80, 85, and 90.  However, some states (including Utah) will allow you to submit an anonymous written report of scary driving exhibited by a neighbor or even a family member.  Contact your local DMV for support on this.

As a special note, I add several sad experiences within my very own circle that could be quoted for a dose of common sense when it’s time for these discussions.

One of my ministering sisters many years ago was a delightful great-grand-mother herself.  One of her own grown grand-daughters made a 10-hour road trip to bring her own two toddlers to visit her in Virginia. On her return drive home to North Carolina, an elderly gentleman in his 80’s ran a red light and hit her head on. They were still four hours from home.  Her leg was severely injured, although thankfully her two young children were secure and unharmed in their car seats.  The driver’s wife was killed, but the driver was fine. The recuperation took many, many months – all complicated by the fact that they were so far from home when it happened.  What a tragedy that could probably have easily been avoided!

In our own extended family circle is a neighbor with a senior grandpa who refused to stop driving.   Eventually there was a terrible accident where a young father, a promising doctor, was killed.  The family sued and the settlement/legal proceedings drained Grandma and Grandpa’s ENTIRE retirement savings and investment funds.  This couple’s last years were completely different in every respect, forcing them to move in and live with children and greatly compromising family relationships that were already difficult, simply because Grandpa had refused to stop driving to prevent an accident.

For our dear friends who think that daytime driving to the grocery store or hair dresser is safe, I offer this true story:  My dear friend’s mother hit the gas instead of the brake while parking at the grocery store.  The car went through the front of the store and hit a bystander.

The last thing our kids (or we) need is the stress and drama of stubborn and unseeing senior parents when there are genuine safety and health concerns that involve more people than just us and our immediate families.  It is a GIFT to give them some legitimate voice when their number one concern is our safety and well-being.

5:  DOWNSIZE OR MODIFY our homes to 1) secure extra needed funds; 2) better meet current and future aging needs; and 3) relieve our grown children of the burden of selling old homes that are loaded with things from days gone by that are no longer needed or wanted.  This is THE golden opportunity for acquiring walk-in showers, living on one level, etc.

With the hot housing market the way it is, now’s the best time ever to sell a home for top dollar!

As a special heads up: We can be kind when our kids do not want our belongings.  Styles have changed a great deal.  Their homes are their homes!  Our china and treasures (often from our own long-gone parents) may be a burden to them.  To graciously accept their taste and preferences without imposing a lot of angst is another gift for them!

6: HANDLE AND UPDATE LEGAL MATTERS so they are not a mystery. Prepare a will and/or a trust. Make sure a DNR is in place and accessible. Introduce them to our lawyers and let our kids know where everything is. Let’s make these decisions while we CAN, so that OUR wishes will be respected and our children will not be responsible for difficult decisions that they may choose to see differently.  These decisions can be a terrible burden for them to make on their own. They can also be a source of much sibling disharmony.

7: LOOK AFTER FINAL ARRANGEMENTS while the decisions are ours, rather than in the aftermath of grief and confusion at the time of a death.  Decisions at the mortuary, many of them costing thousands of dollars, must be made quickly. Tensions run high at these times and money is often spent needlessly and foolishly. We know some very sad stories — and you do too!  The day of our own deaths is coming.  If it’s not for another 30 years, so what?  Why not have a handle on this and some plans written down now?  Many of these expenses can even be prepaid, giving our children that much more freedom and often saving thousands of dollars in the process.

8:  LEAVE A LEGACY of photobooks and journals where life stories and memories can be enjoyed.  We still have a big box of my Mother’s photos that need to be organized.  While she did a great, great deal in organizing family histories and her own life story, that box of photos is a burden for me.  What a gift it would have been for her to have sorted that out. I need to listen to my own counsel on this and get going on the boxes of our own family’s photos.

9:  MAKE A LIST OF CONTACTS, FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS, ONLNE USERNAMES AND PASSWORDS. Let’s make it easy for kids to take care of our financial accounts.  One of my friends spent a month calling all the banks in her town after her father passed away unexpectedly.  He had small accounts all over the city that took her many hours and days to locate.  To this day, she hopes she found them all!

10: DECIDE TO BE NICE, NO MATTER WHAT. It’s s not easy or fun to be nice when we don’t feel well and life is changing all around us. Even so, we can decide to be sociable, friendly, kind, positive, supportive and easy to live with as circumstances and living situations and health needs change.   We can decide to keep up with old friendships and our own social network as much as possible for the independence and pleasure that it brings to us – and our children.

Aging is definitely not anyone’s idea of going to a party, but we can begin with the end in mind:  that we want to be remembered as Christ-like, easy-going, flexible, positive and loving individuals, right down to the last days of our earthly lives.  It’s a decision we can make and pray for now to be good company so that others will voluntarily want to be a part of our lives.

While it may seem like a lot to do, the important thing is to get started!   My favorite quotes are invaluable for these gifts:

Make memories worth remembering!” “Start with the necessary and move on to the possible.” “By the inch it’s a cinch!” “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

There are countless scriptures counseling us to “endure to the end.” We can make it ever so much more pleasant for ourselves and our families by giving them the gift of our personal preparation.  By actively preparing for the days ahead when, before we pass on, we may very well pass the baton of our care and financial situation to them.

Careful preparation might be the sweetest and most important thing we ever give them, setting the stage for the eternities and generations of happy memories.