If the death of our parents is a blow which makes “the very fabric of life…buckle and cave in,” the ageing of our parents resembles a classroom where we learn to give more than we are used to receiving.

Amidst the creamy-white branches of the acacias, a summery breeze meandered, casting a variegated light upon the sparkling mountain. I sat in my folding chair, half in the shadow of the willows, immersed in the pages of a good book.

My mother slipped among the tall herbs, dozens of metres away, foraging for tender bundles of thyme. I was alone, on the border between two worlds: the real one, with the sun streaming over the mountain’s shoulders, and the one captured in words, no less enticing.

And suddenly, my gaze fell upon the neighbouring chair, now occupied by my mother’s lightweight jacket. Thoughts pierced those familiar objects—the comfortable chair, whose green stripes gracefully devoured the white ones, that jacket smelling like a field, which would embrace mother’s shoulders in the evening chill. It made its way to those late evenings when sleep eluded me, fearing that her fragile being would not endure yet another threshold. To the times when time froze in the waiting room, and thoughts awaited, between heartbeats, the harsh verdicts of people in white coats.

That worn out chair, still retaining the warmth of my mother in its rough fabric, suddenly became more vivid than all the beauty reflected in the river, in the willows and acacias, more alive than the pages of a book woven from words and light. All this rush of beauty was swallowed by the miracle laid bare before my eyes: the chair next to me wasn’t empty, as it should have been according to all evidence and verdicts. It was filled by the weight of her jacket, while mother briskly advanced through the tangle of summer grass, becoming a colourful spot, promising to return.

Amidst the challenges brought by ageing parents

The value of a chair that doesn’t remain empty for long can only be fully appreciated by those who encounter their parents only in their memories. The flip side for those of us who enjoy our parents’ presence for a long time is that we become witnesses to their physical decline. This path of their fragility is experienced with a different intensity, akin to mourning, says psychologist Stephanie Krauthammer-Ewing, explaining that a parent’s ageing equates to a child losing the status of a protected person and transitioning into the role of caregiver and protector.

The ageing of parents comes as an abrupt announcement that the roof built to shield us from all the vicissitudes of life is about to collapse. It’s a separation from the young people we knew, full of vitality, seemingly immortal, and getting used to their more fragile version in a season of slowing down, unstable knees, and fragile bones.

The anticipation of future dependence reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives like few other events can. Fear, guilt, frustration are part of the job description for an adult witnessing their parents ageing. The intensity of emotional reactions is influenced by the quality of the relationship with the parent, the level of involvement in their life, and the patterns we typically use to react to change and loss, psychotherapist Maud Purcell says.

Moreover, the slide of parents into the spiral of old age changes our place in the family diagram, forcing us to take on previously unassumed responsibilities, and this change in family dynamics comes at a high cost not only emotionally but also financially and relationally.

The increasingly younger age at which we confront the ageing of parents (between 20 and 30 years old, a decade or even two earlier than previous generations), the absence of a life partner and siblings (millennials are often the only child and marry later) are factors that complicate adaptation to the new reality and demand seeking resources and support in this stage beyond the boundaries of the family.

Ultimately, at any age, the ageing of parents marks the beginning of a turbulent stage because the stakes involve losing the relationship where the protector expects nothing in return from the protected—“neither the certainty of shared feelings, nor the echo of your gestures in the other…where the lack of response, ingratitude, and vexation do not diminish one iota of the love for the other.”[1]

Between grandparents and parents: the last stronghold of childhood

I don’t recall ever being concerned about the ageing of my grandparents. I occasionally thought about the possibility of losing them, and as a child, I even made some calculations, trying to figure out how long we could theoretically spend together.  

It seems strange to me that I lost them without truly witnessing their decline. Of course, I noticed the greying hair, the lines etched on their faces, the tired stoop of their shoulders, or the waning physical vigour (noted more as a declarative statement, as they continued to be as active as ever). But ultimately, my grandparents seemed frozen in a certain age. Adding a new decade brought insignificant changes to their appearance or daily routine, but it carefully undid the diligently sewn fabric of the future together promised by my calculations.

Two decades later, I would come to discover that any sign, no matter how subtle, of my parents’ fragility left a much deeper mark on me, without age itself being a cause for concern. In the meantime, I had moved the threshold at which I suspected someone of ageing increasingly further, which explained even less the tightness in my chest as I kept score in the case of my parents who, already being in the sixth decade of their life, had not, by all accounts, entered the true ageing grinder.

Side by side on an unbeaten path

Speaking of a mother as one “who can take the place of all others but whose place no one else can take,” Gaspard Mermillod expressed a truth whose reality we fully grasp only after losing our parents.

Somehow, the way we love our parents must resemble the way we love our children—deeply, sharply, toughly, and tenderly, until the heartstrings are about to snap, only to realise that we haven’t loved enough. Too often, we fail to make love pierce through its shell and shine in all forms that could make a person feel cherished to the core.

The paths of ageing are countless, as are the ways of accommodating it, which is why it seems difficult to prescribe a recipe for those who want to support their parents on this journey. However different we may be, the way we convey affection and appreciation inevitably intersects with the time we devote to our parents and the depth of our communication.

In a century of haste, we often lament not having a privileged relationship with time, but surely there comes a day when we yearn to have spent more time with our parents. Whether it’s having dinner together, cooking their favourite recipe, flipping through old photo albums, visiting their favourite places, accompanying them to the doctor, or helping them navigate the unfamiliar devices of our modern age, the greatest gift we can give them is our time.

The first signs that our parents are slipping down the ageing slide give us the privilege of building from the remaining time an enclosure where we celebrate what we have. It is a time in which to honestly discuss with them the challenges of this stage of life, to address difficult topics related to the past or future (“It’s the things we haven’t said, that we haven’t asked, that do us harm,” psychotherapist Julia Samuel says), to mend relational fractures, where they exist, and to leverage their experience and advice, restoring to them the sense that they are useful and appreciated.  

I’ve replayed in my mind many times the last encounter with my maternal grandmother, during a weekend when I read too much and spoke too little, even though we shared the same room. A few days later, she was no longer there, and I suddenly realised that she had taken with her the torrent of information, stories, recipes, and advice that had been, for two decades, just a question away. As long as parents have the capacity to communicate, they have so much to share with us that it’s never too early to ensure that we’ve carefully listened to the things that no one else could tell us in their absence—and that we’ve told them how much we love them and how much joy their presence brings us, even when accompanied by signs of fading and dissolution.

Speaking of transparent communication, ageing expert David Solie emphasises that the most important expectations of elderly parents from their adult children are quite reasonable: they want to be listened to when they share with them what they believe, to be taken seriously, and to feel supported by their children.

Gratitude is an essential ingredient for strengthening relationships, especially when the time comes to care for an elderly parent, says Cynthia Ruchti, author of the book, As My Parents Age. If there is ingratitude at both ends of the relationship or animosities among siblings regarding caregiving issues, then the final stretch of the relationship will be poisoned by resentments. However, gratitude for every moment spent with the parent in this season of vulnerability brings a harvest of kindness and fulfilment that transcends the boundaries of this process, due to submission to God’s vision of relationships.

“After the death of our parents, we die for the first time and are born for the second time,” Polish author Andrzej Coryell said. The ageing of our parents sends us through a door that opens too soon, into a reconfigured world where we learn lessons we wouldn’t otherwise have access to: lessons about the blessings that pulse even in the fabric of loss, about vulnerability, dependency, and relinquishing selfishness. And, last but not least, about not letting ourselves be confiscated by the past or future but learning how to live in a continuous present of gratitude, hope, and service.

Carmen Lăiu analyses how we can accompany our parents on the rugged terrain of ageing, learning to celebrate and wisely manage a challenging stage, but also a privilege enjoyed only by some of us.

You might also enjoy reading:


[1]“Gabriel Liiceanu, Ușa interzisă (The forbidden door), Humanitas, Bucharest, 2007, p. 308.”

“Gabriel Liiceanu, Ușa interzisă (The forbidden door), Humanitas, Bucharest, 2007, p. 308.”