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Older people are more "alive" as long as they can give something of themselves

Becoming a parent of your own parents can be a stretching season in life.

Often, it sneaks on you gradually. You find yourself counseling with them, initiating difficult topics of conversation, and moving to a more responsible, active role in their lives.

I became a parent to my father. In addition to materials I read, counsel I sought, and additional family members who bore much more of the burden than I, my father was actively engaged in teaching me how to care for him. He was wise and wonderful, carefully and firmly telling me where my limits ended and his liberties continued.

Of course, he was willing to hear me out and often conceded that I was right on some things. But he wanted to control the things he could still control. As his health deteriorated over a period of eight or so years, we worked together and I learned much about the deep, meaningful relationships children can develop as they care for their parents. I also learned important concepts about how to approach such a stewardship.

Honor their retained skills

Being old doesn't mean being dumb. At first, this was very difficult for me to realize. My father's body was disintegrating and so it was easy for me to forget that his mind was truly well, active and astute.

He would often remind me that he could think for himself and make choices with educated viewpoints. He wanted to do so whenever possible.

Make all necessary adjustments with haste and completeness

My father was an active man, having worked physically hard all his life. Having to use a wheelchair was a humbling experience for him, and a difficult one for me to watch. However, it helped keep him as independent as possible, which motivated me to work on his behalf.

In addition to the wheelchair, he had a bathtub stool so he could continue to bathe himself in private. He also designed a wooden ramp to help him get out of the house and onto what he called his "garden motorcycle" without aid.

Of course, the motorcycle was really a four-wheel vehicle that allowed him to be mobile on his small farm. He could check to see if his grandsons were really watering the south garden sufficiently, feeding the chickens diligently and pulling all the weeds from his strawberry patch.

Maintain their interest in their passions

My father loved computers, scanners and all things glass. As his diminishing capacities forced him to withdraw from teaching at a local university, it was essential for us to set up a home office for him that suited his continued interest in civil engineering, family history and creative glass blowing.

Financially, it was a difficult investment sometimes, but he needed day-to-day stimulation and thoroughly enjoyed the latest technological gizmo. Supporting him in these acquisitions kept him ripe for conversations with his grandchildren about the Internet, computer programs and pocket planners.

In addition, it allowed him to finish his personal military history complete with scanned photos and a professional layout.

When his health deteriorated to the point that he couldn't easily leave the house, he asked me to make a video of the strawberry patch so he could see how his experiment had gone through the overly cold winter.

He had made arrangements for half of the patch to be covered with a new kind of insulated blanket. Were those plants developing faster and blooming sooner? The camcorder video kept him abreast of farm activities he could no longer supervise personally.

Increase audio and visual stimulation

One important lesson I learned about helping the elderly was that visual stimulation and audio experiences make for a better life, more interesting conversation and increased hope. On those days when I brought a gift of interest, proposed a creative outing or shared a current news items, I found my father responded in kind. He became more animated, more interested and more creative.

He, of course, needed to offer something in return. This meant I would try to have questions, ask for an opinion, or tell a story that required his interpretation or comment. In other words, the elderly need to be needed and want to be interesting. They have much perspective to add.

Visit, visit, visit

My father lived in an area of the country and around people who had been settled for a long time. When he came upon another older stranger, he would inquire after their name, birthplace and their life's wanderings. Soon he had found a point of connection ... and off he would go making this stranger his friend.

I believe the opportunity to share his world with all comers, his friendliness and his desire for sharing were a rare talent he possessed. As his caretaker, I helped by taking him to weddings, reunions, graduations and other important celebrations for his extended family, friends and associates. Patiently waiting for him while he visited was a grand gift for him. In other words, I had to adopt his pace.

Let them contribute

Older people are more "alive" as long as they can give something of themselves. Encourage older people to give and give again, within the limits of their capacities. In my father's case, he loved to give freely of his produce and always wanted us to help him plant a large vegetable garden. When friends and family came during the later summer months, he had gifts to give. He wanted his garden planted long after he could tend it himself, and we found a way to do it for him.

Other elderly people I have known, especially women, give flowers from their gardens, tended and maintained with the occasional aid of grandchildren or nearby neighborhood teenagers.

Set parameters on your availability and then keep your commitments

Caring for your parents is difficult. It can be emotionally and physically exhausting, especially if you are the only child close enough or willing enough to take the responsibility. In my case, there was a nearby son to take care of the farm animals, a sister and her family who lived in my father's home, and close-by siblings who came frequently to brighten the long days.

My stewardship settled into handling finances, medical decisions, running errands with my father, and helping him with computer and Internet needs.

We chose Tuesday as my regular day to visit. We went through his to-do list, made purchases and ate at the fast food restaurant of his choice. He loved hamburgers and fries.

The joys of this weekly stewardship were considerable and well worth the effort for me. I made new memories with my dad as I took care of his grooming, drove wherever he desired and helped him learn more about his computer. These hours together are all very precious to me now that he is gone.

Yes, it took a lot of energy, but was a prized time of giving back as I had been given. In the reversal of roles, it wasn't exactly an even trade, but I came away from the experience with few disappointments and plenty of pleasant thoughts about that season of being his caretaker.

If this role becomes yours, embrace it. You will discover along the way the treasures deep in the soul of the parent you now parent.

Marie Ricks is an author and motivational speaker, sharing lessons from her life and passions. By trade she is a professional organizer, by love she is a wife and mother, by experience she is an observer of people, places and life's lessons.