While our society for many years, especially in American culture, has been focused on rugged individualism, there is a phenomenon that is not really talked about. Adele’s recent visit on Oprah really got to the heart of parental-child reconciliation. I caught up with Florida-based professional end-of-life care manager and specialist, Amy O’Rourke and she shared some insightful thoughts.
Amy has been working with families for 40 years, helping seniors get public benefits, finding good care environments, and has watched many people lose their parents with unresolved issues, and others, with resolution. She believes that it’s a smoother experience post-death when those issues are resolved. Amy is passionate about helping families learn and heal.
She wrote a book, “The Fragile Years” to help children understand that their elderly parents are in another stage in life.
Amy believes that while grief is inevitable, it’s a “smoother, less complicated and more malleable experience. It's not as fraught with the ‘what ifs’ which are unanswerable. And so I could see that she got the peace from reconciling with her dad, having that conversation”. Not everyone is as lucky as Adele. She recommends for those who didn’t have the opportunity she had, to write in a letter, everything you wanted to say. Prayer is another great outlet, visualizing sending messages to your parents. This will help in the grieving process.
Whether it’s trauma or abuse, abandonment, as in Adele’s case, or just hurt feelings over a parent prioritizing one sibling over another, reconciliation is key to peace.
To bridge the generational divide, Amy believes in looking for common ground. In this day and age, there are many differences from a previous generation that wasn’t as technologically savvy and a new one with more of a crowdsourcing mentality, conflict is inevitable. Amy advises practical solutions like setting real and clear boundaries around conversations. If a family has different political views, just avoid the topics that divide. Go the higher ground and focus on what unites. Shorter visits work, so time can be spent without things devolving into conflict. “Maybe it’s zoom calls, shorter phone calls, letters, writing notes and cards - finding ways to communicate to maintain the quality of the relationship, but not compromise your internal stress meter, if you will”. Speaking in positive tones, and being cognizant of phrasing helps but also being clear about the purpose of a visit and to have a positive goal and takeaway. Framing the visit and setting a time boundary like “Mom, I can only see you for an hour” helps. Start with surface level conversations like the weather and slowly build upon the connection.
In the interview, Adele acknowledged that she had made mistakes. Amy appreciates that humility and finds it powerful to acknowledge that you’re not perfect. She says this is the door to healing and to be open to listening to what happened to your parents. “I think the key to good relationships is really understanding ‘what did the other person go through that caused them to do what they did’, and sometimes with a little understanding and compassion (not necessarily taking responsibility off them) but having a little bit of understanding”, it goes a long way.
In Adele’s case, alcoholism was one of those reasons. Adele recognized that her father was dealing with a disease and chose to forgive and move past the resentments. A good social support network is key for all parties involved, whether it’s friends or counselors, your church or community organizations. Amy gives this advice for those experiencing acute emotions, “make sure that that's a little resolved and calmed down a bit before going in”.
Adele’s interview also touches on something very few people talk about. In fact, end of life care is so rarely talked about that many struggle to understand what Amy does. This is attributable to our culture which values youth over age and wisdom, in contrast to other cultures. A trip to Japan opened up Amy’s eyes to a contrasting society and she came away inspired by the “enriching experience” when she visited a day center for the elderly in a huge building and saw all the different programs, activities and even bike riding.
Amy, like myself, was blessed with a love of the elderly, from a very young age. For both of us, it was a key grandparent. Amy digs deeper, “I had no meaningful relationships with my grandparents. But they were so honest, real, and down to earth. I was struck with that.”
Amy cites high profile public figures besides Adele who have dealt with end of life care issues that were not well publicized. “It's shocking to me that Hillary Clinton's mother died, and we didn't really know about that. We also didn't know that Condoleezza Rice left the public domain to take care of her father. These famous people - you know about their children, but you don't know about their parents.” Amy feels that it’s a fear of mortality in this society that evokes complicated emotions so people retreat instead of facing those emotions head on. The American health care system also sees an old person as a commodity and the medicine system is capitalized where somebody on Medicare makes a lot of money on an old person.
For those with Alzheimer’s, dementia or cognitive degeneration, Amy herself has dealt with that. Her father had frontotemporal dementia. However, she says to use it as an opportunity to get educated on memory impairment and what’s normal around this, so children don’t compound communication issues due to ignorance. Be with them wherever they are at, and make the goal to be to establish a loving connection. “It goes a long way because you won't hear back from [your parent] what hat you might want to hear back from [them]. You can build on some loving memories. And I think it's a deeper, more meaningful experience. It's easy to love someone who loves you back [but] it's harder, and yet more deeply satisfying, to love someone who doesn't love you back because they can't. So you're watching their nonverbal. So you're teaching others, you're spreading that love around you because you're doing the harder thing. You’'re taking the higher road.” She cites the man who would sit with his wife 8 hours a day, even if she didn’t know who he was. This man inspired Amy profoundly.
You can find Amy’s book on Amazon, “The Fragile Years: Proven Strategies for the Care of Aging Loved Ones”. It gives inside intelligence and tips for all the systems that you'll interact with for your elderly parent: hospital, nursing, home assisted living, Medicaid, VA resources, Social Security, Medicare, Medicare Advantage, and everything else. “In the fragile years, you'll have a foundation to learn because you [need] to learn things in short order when they hit the skids, when they are in a crisis. Don’t stay frustrated with why your parent is not getting better. When they're in the fragile years, they don't get better.”
Amy’s biggest advice is “rather than giving them a lot of care, you can support them to have less care. So their quality of life at the end is longer and more peaceful, without a lot of those acute interventions. But by recognizing the stages, and then having the insight intelligence to navigate it when they run into medical difficulty, [you can do more good]”
Marc Ang (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a community organizer in Southern California and the founder of Asian Industry B2B. He throws many health and wellness events, and believes psychological health is key to good physical health. Marc’s book “Minority Retort” will be released in late 2021