This is a big topic because medical science is providing the opportunity for longer life, but this brings up many ethical issues about quality of life, cost and utility. I don't want to talk about these topics today but if you're interested the 2012 book Shock of Gray by Ted Fishman broaches the subject of how the world may be thrown into chaos with a boom in the population aged 65 and up.
My consideration of aging parents is more personal. I've noticed over the years that many middle-aged adults still carry around old resentments , neuroses and grudges centered around their parents. The painting above, which depicts Paul Cezanne's father, was born of a tense relationship between the artist and the wealthy patriarch. Louis-Auguste was a formidable elder--what one might call "old school"--who didn't view art as an appropriate or mature profession. To be fair, his son Paul, though brilliant, was irresponsible with his personal relationships and obligations. He had a son by a peasant mistress, and though he married her for the sake of their child, he did not care for her--and perhaps rightly so (she later gambled away the small inheritance she received from Paul's estate). The two lived separately for most of their marriage.
Paul was also not particularly successful as a painter and got into many spats with fellow artists, art dealers and authors. He was a tough and tortured genius who didn't really want the company of others. He did, however, reconcile with his father who eventually bestowed his blessing and left Paul financially stable with an inheritance. Despite that assurance, Paul Cezanne died young, at the age of 67, when he caught pneumonia from being outdoors painting in a storm. Soaked and frozen to the bone, he could not be saved from the illness nor from the madness and obsessiveness of his own genius.
Cezanne's story mimics the same problems that so many people face with parents. Our moms and dads often have high expectations which we struggle to meet. They may not approve of the partners we choose or the way we raise our children. On the flip side, we look at parents and see idiosyncrasy or obstinence. We see people who are set in their ways and close-minded, maybe even autocratic. We may witness marriages strained by too many years of bickering or putting up with one another's quirks and this can be distressing. We can come up against old prejudices or attitudes that seem antiquated and unappealing. Parents may have health issues, money problems, mental illness, substance problems, or begin getting forgetful or even fading into dementia. In other words, they are flawed--but so are we.
Our society is fixated on longevity and fighting aging and it strikes me as almost absurd given how we treat the elderly. We want to live "forever" but disrespect those who are getting up there. The problem lies in wanting to cling to life, but not wanting to age. One of the best things I ever witnessed was in Beijing, China. I was on a school tour and we visited a park where hundreds of retirees were recreating: ballroom dancing, playing cards, instruments, badminton, table tennis, practicing tai chi or fencing. Some were healthy and spry, others had been wheeled there and were clearly immobile, but everyone was engaged in the social and communal aspect of the place. So much better than fossilizing in front of a television in a nursing home!
We have much to learn from how other cultures treat their elderly. Additionally, we have much to learn about how we interact with our parents.
First, let me acknowledge that if you've experienced mental, verbal, physical or sexual abuse from a parent/s, then professional help is really what the situation demands. I would never suggest that someone who has suffered at the hands of an abusive adult should feel obligated to pay respect to that individual. However, if your issue with your parents is not of that ilk, then you need to grow up and get over your hang-ups. I know that was what I needed. A bit of time with a therapist talking through anger, sadness, disappointment, fear and guilt got me into the right frame of mind to have a healthier relationship with my parents. I can set boundaries and take care of my needs without ignoring them or harboring old hurts. It is important to make your peace because when they are gone you don't want to wish that you'd started talking to them again, or visited, or asked them about their own childhoods, or shared your life with them more generously. If you're hesitating because your mom or dad is a real pain in the ass, well then look in the mirror! We all are in some way or another. Say something, tactfully, when needed, otherwise just accept them for who they are. My parents aren't perfect (and neither am I). But, I'm proud of them for being awesome grandparents and for keeping their minds fully engaged. Whether it's playing an instrument, cooking, doing crosswords, following politics, sports, or music, they have remained "in the game." If you're keeping yourself "out of the game" of a relationship because it may be a little difficult at times then reconsider what you are sacrificing either out of fear or pride. Death for all of us is inevitable, regret does not have to be.