By BRUCE FEILER
I HAD flown from New York to my hometown, Savannah, Ga., many times before — to introduce my girlfriend to my parents, to get married, to take my newborn twins for a visit. But this was the first time I was flying for the express purpose of taking care of my aging parents.
Not long ago, my father, who suffers from Parkinson’s, had back surgery. For weeks, my mother nursed him through an elaborate ritual of bathing, feeding and physical therapy. Then, just hours before he was going to have a follow-up procedure, my mother fell and dislocated her shoulder. Suddenly my father was on the way to one hospital; my mother, another.
My siblings and I, who all live in different states, huddled on the phone. Soon I was on my way.
Two new studies released this summer capture the colossal shift under way as Americans deal with a rapidly graying population. The Pew Research Center found that a quarter of Americans helped an adult loved one with personal needs, from household chores to managing finances. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 40 million people provide care to an aging parent.
More surprising, men are providing more and more of this care — 45 percent in both studies.
The subject of caring for parents has recently burst into public view. Michael Wolff wrote a cover article in New York magazine in late May titled: “Mom, I Love You. I Also Wish You Were Dead. And I Expect You Do, Too.” And last month Joe Klein wrote a cover essay in Time Magazine called “How to Die,” about the last days of his parents.
But as the father of young daughters, I have been struck by another aspect of what can be a long, enervating ordeal. Caring for parents has eerie parallels with raising children, though without the giggles and glee. My father, who watched his mother battle Alzheimer’s, memorably captured the feeling: Bringing down parents is much harder than bringing up kids, he said.
At first glance, taking care of children and taking care of parents seem vastly different. The first involves gradually introducing someone to the larger world; the second, helping someone disengage from the world. With children, we expect it will take time to care for them; with parents, we’re surprised by how much time it takes.
Also, the pitfalls seem almost reversed. Parents of children are badgered not to be “helicopter parents,” hovering over our kids and not allowing them to make mistakes. But children of aging parents are told to hover more: step up, provide support, offer distraction. Hounded not to be helicopter parents to our kids, we’re challenged to be “tugboat children” to our parents, steering them through narrowing waters.
Still, there are numerous parallels between caring upward and caring downward on the family tree.
""""SHOW ME THE MONEY For starters""", both children and older parents need help managing money. During one visit home, my father asked me to help upgrade his cellphone. I quickly discovered he was being charged $200 a month under a 10-year-old plan. A few moments later I had lowered his bill to less than $40 a month.
That experience led me to go one by one through my parents’ bills — electricity, water, cable, insurance. The good news was that I saved them thousands of dollars a year. The bad news was that it led to some awkward exchanges as I had to quiz them about their expenses and gently make the case that they no longer needed certain items.
A number of financial experts have recommended a “financial driver’s license” for older Americans to prove their competence. If my experience is any indication, a learner’s permit is also a good analogy: You’re allowed to drive your own decisions, Mom and Dad, but only if one of your kids is in the car.
"""I’M BORED""" When I was young, one of my mother’s favorite mantras was: hobbies, hobbies, hobbies. “You need to be able to entertain...