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People often meet the challenge of raising children by reading tombs of parenting advice. But how many of us give a thought to one of the most complicated caregiving roles of all: how to be a great kid to your aging parents?

With all the advances in medicine, we’re living longer. That increases the likelihood that you’ll provide some sort of care for your elderly parents one day. How will you respond?

My husband and I had no children, so we skipped the doubts and uncertainties that go with parenting. Seeing our parents through their eighth decade of life has given us many occasions to question whether we’re serving them as well as they did us.

We’ve gleaned some wise tips from friends and family, and I’m happy to share them with you:

Galvanize relationships with siblings. As an adult sibling, you may be accustomed to going your own way. The busyness of raising your own family and/or old sibling rivalries can tax these relationships. Forgive old resentments and rebuild those bridges before your parents need you. It may take an entire village to give your parents the attention they need and deserve. Each child has a unique relationship with each parent. Some adult children can perform certain roles or tasks based on their personalities, skills sets or relationships. If everyone fills his or her unique role, life will be so much better. Try your best to work together. If possible, don’t keep score about what each sibling does or doesn’t do for your parents. Trust that everyone is doing his or her best, no matter how that looks to you. Hint: Don’t forget to tap grandchildren. They often have an incredible degree of influence with your parents.

If you live away from your parents geographically, keep in touch with trusted friends and neighbors who see them most. Close friends and neighbors often have a pulse on what’s going on with your parents when you and your siblings don’t. They may even provide support for household chores, grocery shopping and transportation to doctors. Make sure you build relationships with these people. They can be important allies for responding to your parents needs. Buy gifts cards, share goodie baskets—whatever it takes to let them know how much you appreciate them for what they do.

Form a support network. For the most part, I felt very alone with my questions about how to handle our parents’ care until my church offered a class on the subject. There I found a room full of people who faced similar dilemmas. The more we talked, the more I realized that I was not flying solo. Since then, I’ve made it a point to ask others about their aging parents. I’ve also consulted people who’ve already lost their parents and asked what they would do differently if they could do it over again. “I wouldn’t assume that I had all the answers,” said one family friend. It’s the best piece of advice I’ve received so far. As a retired mental health professional, she regrets that she ushered her father through one set of decisions after another, as though she knew best. Now that he’s gone, she’s not so sure. I try to remember this as I deal with my parents and their choices—whether I agree with them or not.

Consult organizations for seniors in your area—or theirs. How Medicare and health insurance works is a world of mysteries to those of us who’ve never used it. Most states have councils on aging that offer free advice to help you wade through confusing details about payment for care. They can also provide guidance and resources for helping your senior parents remain vital and independent.

Never talk down to your parents. I wish I could plop my parents back on the pedestal where they’ve been most of my life, but that isn’t going to happen. Their progression through life has given me a more complete view of them and all their frailties. They’re still the smartest people I know, but I realize they have feet of clay. Nevertheless, they are due the same respect I’ve always given them—perhaps even more after all they’ve weathered. Taking on their battles can be a dangerously subtle form of condescension. When my parents express the notion that their doctors have the ultimate say about their medical decisions, I react like a protective bulldog. “It’s YOUR body! It’s YOUR life! You don’t have to do anything unless you want to!” When I hang up the phone, I’m filled with regret that I didn’t take a softer approach. I can’t protect my parents from all of life’s challenges anymore than they could protect me. Until their situation demands something different, think of yourself as a trusted counselor—not their boss or defense team.

Let your help be their idea. Whether they show it or not, your parents probably know they are vulnerable. If you ask them how you can help and wait patiently for the answer, you may be surprised how open they are. We all feel better about life when we have some say about it.

Experiment with pushing them—a little. Most everyone wants to live as independently as possible for as long as they can. Sometimes seniors need just a little help to stay in their own home or manage sticky problems. The first time I offered to help my mother resolve a dispute with one of their utility companies, I was nervous as a cat. It felt unnatural. She had always handled their household business perfectly, but after several attempts to remedy a problem, she was so stressed by the conflict that it triggered a series of essential tremors—a close cousin to Parkinson’s disease. To my surprise, she was relieved when I offered to help. Ditto for my father when my brothers and I gave him a summer of lawn mowing as a birthday present the year he was recovering from a major surgery. We thought they might resist our efforts to help, but by pushing gently—and respectfully—we removed two unpleasant tasks that were becoming physically daunting. On the flip side, it’s true that everyone needs a few challenges to stay sharp. Dad started mowing his lawn again as soon as he could. He credits it with helping him get stronger. Learn where the boundaries are with your parents.

Phone calls are great, but nothing substitutes for being there. When you don’t live nearby, you can miss visual clues that reveal how your parents are doing. They may sound great on the phone, but some people go to great lengths to conceal their own limitations. If your home is remote from your parents, consider visiting them at least once a month for more than an hour. Overnights and weekends are even better for appraising their condition, and of course, for companionship. You’ll see them rise in the morning, take midday naps and how they feel at bedtime. Observe how they navigate when they are somewhere that’s not part of their normal routine. In the safety of their own surroundings, mobility and cognitive issues may be well concealed. Not so when you get them away from home.

Be patient and don’t judge. Health problems can radically change personalities. The mild-mannered may become feisty, the feisty may become meek, and the unselfish may become self-centered. You never know how your parents will be. At times, you’ll look at them and wonder if aliens have invaded their bodies—and that doesn’t begin to account for the effects of dementia. They may live in stubborn denial of their declining health, or be entrenched in debilitating aches and pains that affect everything from mobility to social skills. Either way, it can be frustrating. Don’t avoid them because it’s difficult.

Do what you do because of who they are. Encourage, listen and support. If your parents do or say things that make you crazy, bite your tongue. When you feel you’re about to go over the cliff, remember (if you can) all the trials you gave them. Remember that they loved you with all your imperfections. Those memories are usually humbling enough that you can easily return the favor of patience. We never know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes—not even our parents’.

Ask your parents to give written consent for their physicians to discuss their medical conditions with you and your siblings. All your siblings can have access to your parents’ healthcare information through paperwork completed in each doctor’s office. As your parents’ health declines, you may need to be more involved in their healthcare, especially when there are new diagnoses. If possible, ask to accompany them to significant medical appointments to get more than one set of ears on what doctors say. Encourage your parents to write their questions before they visit. Doctors are demi-gods to many seniors; without your prodding, your parents may be timid about challenging a physician or asking questions. Insist that the doctor address your parent—not you—in any joint discussion. You’re there to listen, and perhaps to coax your parents into asking follow-up questions. Most doctors will respect your parent as the patient, but you’ll occasionally meet one who addresses you instead. That mild form of condescension should not be tolerated.

Accept that you won’t always do things perfectly. Your patience and judgment will ebb and flow with circumstances. Rely on God and close friends to be your sounding boards. Take good care of yourself physically and emotionally, so you can take care of the people who raised you!

My parents are everything to me and continue to be a guiding light in my life. As my friends lose their parents or care for them in declining health, I’m reminded of how precious our time is and how blessed I am to have mine. If you’ve already traveled this path, please share your wisdom. I can definitely use it!

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.