By Katherine Sharma
As the New Year begins, I’m suffering from a post-holiday mental hangover. One of the blessings, and trials, of the holidays for baby boomers like me is that we reunite with aging parents (if we’re lucky enough to still have living parents). Framed by past holiday memories, the physical and mental deterioration of these folks in their 80s and 90s is disturbing. Our parents, even those in relatively good physical and mental shape, are far from the people of our youth. They are often, by necessity, focused only on self-centered needs and anxieties. They may be preoccupied with the past–from triumphs to trivia–in a way that muddles their present. They may require a caretaker role that is financially, emotionally and physically exhausting.
To make it tougher, needy parents can be resistant, resentful and critical. Certainly, I have heard my friends, seniors themselves, lament the burden of self-absorbed and difficult aging parents. Of course, accusations of selfishness can go both ways. As sons and daughters, even gray-haired ones, we selfishly yearn for the parents who put us first–providing comfort, security and guidance. It’s hard to accept that those parents are gone. And the parents who disappointed and wounded are gone, too; there is no resolution or atonement to be had from these parental ghosts. So how to deal with caring for elderly loved ones? Well, I find laughter is one balm for sorely tried nerves–certainly better than denial, anger or depression. So when my 89-year-old father’s memory pastes bits of past, present and fantasy together to produce amazing fables, or his confused actions create a theater of the absurd, I let myself laugh at the ridiculous results. I laugh at my own bumbles and grumbles in response, too. The comic relief helps keep tears and fears at bay. For an example of humor coupled with honesty in dealing with aging parents, read the recent memoir by Roz Chast, the New York Times cartoonist. A 2014 National Book Award finalist, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? combines text with Chast’s cartoons, family photos and documents to offer both comfort and comedy about this tough subject: http://www.amazon.com/Cant-Talk-about-Something-Pleasant-ebook/dp/B00JA9JE0Y