A word on helping our parents age well

There comes a time in almost all of our lives when age takes its toll and we need to step up to support our parents in some way, shape or form. Yet this life-stage seems overlooked by our mainstream culture and – perhaps as a result – we are often totally unprepared when it arrives.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for the responsibility of looking after my father, which has transformed my life and career in ways I never anticipated.

My father has early-stage dementia, and supporting him has not only changed my role in the family and how I operate in the wider world; it has plunged me into a succession of experiences that led to the launch of ‘Eldering’.

As I took on this role, it dawned on me that we seem to lack a broad, respectful term that describes the support and care of elder parents and relatives, the responsibilities and activities involved with this, and also the personal and family changes this brings about. There is no equivalent to the word “parenting” for this significant role in life.

The most commonly used word, ‘caring,’ too strongly implies personal care – such as bathing and dressing someone – but this is not always involved, particularly at the start. The words ‘Carer’ or ‘Care-giver’ feel strange when it is your own parent you are helping, implying they have become passive recipients of care.  These terms are far too narrow and hint at obligation and disempowerment.

‘Reverse parenting’ or ‘parenting your parents’ that have also been used are more general, but the likeness to parenting is limited and can sound patronising. Our parents are not children, and the dynamic of the relationship is different. However dependent our parents become, it’s important to preserve their autonomy and dignity, and acknowledge the valuable lessons, support and contributions they can still offer from a lifetime of experience.

The term that occurred to me was elders, therefore ‘eldering.‘ Googling the word, I discovered that ‘eldering’ has been used previously by the Quakers, then several subsequent spiritual groups, but for all these groups the word has a specialised meaning to describe a particular practice in their philosophy.

I propose ‘eldering’ as a broad, general word to mean supporting and helping our parents to age well, including all the legal and practical admin that comes with this life-stage. A respectful word that also recognises the transition of our own place within the family as we get closer to becoming the ‘elders’ ourselves.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the poor national discussion around the subject of old-age and ageing parents is the persistence of negative myths, social attitudes and habits.  What if the word ‘eldering’ could be part of a change in the way we talk about supporting ageing parents, from one of burden to one of honour, value and growth?

By embracing ‘eldering’ as a valuable rite of passage, we can start to reframe this life-stage in a more positive light, as a transition towards greater wisdom.  Instead of a burdensome duty, we can view it as an opportunity for personal growth and familial bonding – a way to test our strength and integrity, to honour our lineage and leave an example for the next generation, who will – someday – be ‘eldering’ us.

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