A Parting Gift: Advice from a Sandwich Generation Graduate

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Dr. Roger Landry, MD, MLH, Masterpiece Living

Mom died this year. It was a long, slow, painful, degrading and expensive departure. Painful not only for her, but also for my brother and I, our wives, and children, and grandchildren. She was the last of our parent generation, so officially, we have to turn in our sandwich generation card. Actually, we should have turned it in long ago because our kids are grown, but kids have a way of remaining your kids forever, if you know what I mean. So, as I leave the ranks of those challenged by the needs of children on the one slice, and of parents on the other, I’d like to leave a token of some kind… a gift… a gift of advice.

During my mother’s decline I was researching for my book, ironically entitled Live Long, Die Short. Learning what it takes to age in a better way… to remain vital for longer and avoid exactly what I was bearing witness to with my mother… burned itself into my mind and heart. The term for this better alternative for aging is called compression of morbidity, compressing the time that we are sick and impaired so that we can… well… live long and die short. The good news is that it’s absolutely possible.

What we’ve learned about aging successfully

Research into aging over the last twenty years has emphatically tipped over the apple cart of traditional thought. How we age is mostly determined by lifestyle. That’s right, the choices we make every day. How much we move, continue to learn and grow, keep connected to others, have purpose in our lives and yes, how we eat… all these choices are the major player on what our aging journey looks like. The sad part is that the right choices were handed down to us from our ancient ancestors and are programmed into our very DNA as our needs, but our fast-paced, high tech, stress-filled, and calorie rich lifestyles are ignoring this legacy and taking us down a dark and pot-holed road.

So, fellow sandwich people, I leave you some condiments that will hopefully help you make your life more like a picnic. This advice is what you can do to help your parents age in a better way and limit the time they are impaired; to ensure they compress the time they are sick rather than be a burden, squeezing you and your family.

What you can do for your parents…

First, Be Their Vince Lombardi. Realize that it is their choices, not yours, which will slow their own molding. Your role is to be a coach not a nag. No one likes to be told they’re doing the wrong thing by others, particularly by their children. A coach stimulates you to try and become the best you can be. More accurately to be all that you want to be. So your first task is to engage in conversation with your parents and find out what’s important to them. What would they like to do, or accomplish if they knew they wouldn’t fail? Or if they had the energy and mobility? Travel? Be more active with your children? Give back somehow? Brush the dust off a long-neglected dream? The next question for them is Why not? Tell them you read in a great new book (hint hint) that in most cases, those “dreams” are possible. It may take some accommodation and modification (or not), but with desire, possibilities expand. The next thing to jointly determine is what is it that’s preventing you from doing it? The answer to that question, is the beginning of a plan.

Use gentle reins rather than a whip. Most people fail at lifestyle change or attaining their goals, because they shoot too high. Unrealistic expectations inevitably result in failure and demolished passion. So guide your parents away from the New Year’s resolution-type plan to one with small achievable steps. Do they want to travel but cannot stand for long periods? Stand during TV commercials for a week or so. Then walk in place during the commercials. Then walk for five minutes until they are off to Sedona for a hiking vacation.

Help them discover their new purpose in life. It is purpose that gets us out of bed in the morning; that keeps us vital; that keeps us growing; that keeps us alive. Working towards a dream is what keeps you going, and so it is with older adults. You cannot tell someone their purpose. It is deeply personal, but coaching questions like those above can find diamonds in the rough. Or questions like; What would you like your life to be now? Or what does a rewarding life look like for you?

Encourage them to stay connected. Social connection to family and friends is a non-negotiable component of a successful aging experience. Ask about old friends, or lifelong learning classes, or social events. If one of your parents has passed, this is even more important. Social connection reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, depression and even dementia.

So, there’s my meager but heartfelt gift to you as I myself move on and seek to not be a piece of heavy bread for my own children. I want instead to be the jelly. Live Long. Live Well.