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summer contemplation

We can help our parents depart gracefully.


One thing that all we over-50s have in common is that if we have living parents, they’re nearing the end of their lives. It’s difficult to face that reality until we are forced to by catastrophic events. I had one of those catastrophic events recently when I was told that my mother had a tumor on her pancreas. My mother is 85, and so illnesses like this are deadly serious. As it turned out, her surgeon was able to remove the cancerous tumor, and we are hopeful she will have a few more years with us. As a two-time cancer survivor, I know that cancer is an intractable foe, and the rest of her life will be a battle against it.

a mother and her baby

Natural order.

Dealing with my mother’s serious illness has made me realize that the decline and fall of parents is part of the fabric of life after 50. It’s an ordeal not just for the parent but for the over-50 child as well. Parents are our bulwark against death. As long as we have a parent alive, the grim reaper will take the parent before the child. It’s the natural order of things. But once we don’t have the parent ahead of us, we’re next. And that’s kinda scary.

It seems to me that American society in general, and our healthcare system in particular, do not handle well the illnesses of people at the end of their lives. Instead of concentrating on the quality of life, and the patient’s wishes, we do everything we can to increase the quantity of life. To add a few months to life, we take extraordinary steps like respirators. Rather than give up fighting for life, we bring out radiation therapy and chemotherapy, knowing full well the misery they will cause.

But who determines when a parent will be forced to fight for life or be allowed to peacefully expire? When the issue came up during the Obamacare debate, people like Sarah Palin criticized the “death panels” that would decide who lived and who died. We find it impossible to let go of people who sometimes are begging us to let them go.

Issues like living wills, hospice care and assisted suicide become all too real once you have an aged, sick parent. It’s the side of life after 50 you won’t hear talked about on other blogs. But this blog is dedicated to presenting the “warts-and-all” picture of life after 50, from the white of a daughter’s bridal gown to the black of a father’s funeral drape. After all, we all are in the same boat. It may help to talk about it.

And it doesn’t have to be grim. The end of life can be a celebration of what that person has meant to us; a celebration of the difference that person’s life has made. It can be a time to finally say “I love you,” and to show it by our actions. It’s up to us over-50s to show our children, through our example, how we want to be treated at the end of our lives. In effect, while our parents are teaching us how to gracefully exit this life, the best thing we can show our children is how to be good children.