Every now and then, I hear someone complaining about the hard time they have helping an elderly parent. Some say they resent the time it takes to "run every time help is needed."
Actually, it happens more often than it should.
When it does, I never know if I should hold my tongue or say what I think. Speaking my mind usually wins.
This week, I listened to an acquaintance talk about the demands on her time because of her elderly father. They live a little more than an hour apart and she complains that it takes all day to drive him to a doctor's appointment.
"There will come a time," I tell her, "when you won't have him. You won't be able to do a darn thing for him because he will be gone. But you'll be happy for every time you were there for him."
Maybe, she says with a dubious tone.
No maybes about it. Those of us who have lost parents can tell those struggling to care for adult parents there is something worse than the time crunch they are experiencing. The void that is left after a parent dies is far worse than years of struggle that went before it.
When my sister and I were dealing with the heartbreak of seeing our mother's mind eradicated by Alzheimer's disease, every stage seemed worse than the last.
Finally, when Mom could no longer talk and had to be fed, my sister proclaimed: "It can't get any worse than this."
I told her the unfortunate thing was the next stage was worse because the next stage was losing our mother.
After Mom died and we both felt like we would give anything to be able to see her again, my sister said I was right. The long void of not having her was ongoing – the toughest stage of all for an adult child.
We console ourselves with the thought that while we could, we did everything possible to help our parents.
Every now and then I see examples of grown kids who actually extend the lives of elderly parents through care and attention.
One fellow I know in Pennsylvania had an elderly father living in New Jersey. Every time he went to visit, the father had withdrawn from life even more. He no longer read, no longer watched TV. He didn't even respond to his son's visits.
His brother told him that his father's mind was gone. There was nothing to do, he said, except to put him in a home.
Although he worked full time and wasn't in a position to stay there with his dad, he brought him back to Pennsylvania with him. While he worked during the day, he enrolled his father in an adult day care situation.
That's when something strange happened: Little by little, his father perked up, happy with the attention he was getting, both at home and at day care.
When I went to the day care center to do a story, the workers told me that the once unresponsive man is now the darling of everyone there.
My friend Louise had a similar experience with her father. When her mother died and her father got sick, she was traveling four hours each way to help out. She was fatigued from the emotional and physical toll it was taking on her.
When her dad got worse, she moved him to her house to spend his last days. She thought he would mind being surrounded by noisy teenagers.
Instead, the opposite happened. Her father blossomed as he enjoyed the lively house. They all spent a few good years together before he passed on.
The gift of presence can work wonders. Even a few hours of presence is better than the most expensive present an adult child can give a parent. At the very least, it can make a parent's day.
When my father was living, I traveled several hours each way to see him. Each time I went to visit I took along a cooked meal and a special treat or present.
"I hope you like it," I would say as dad unwrapped his present.
"Doesn't matter what's in here," he always answered. "The best present is having you here."
I guess I've said it plenty of times before. Presence is the best gift of all.
Sometimes, in the rush of life as we try to balance all the balls in the air at the same time, it's important to remember that.
Whenever we put ourselves out to give the gift of presence, we are giving the most meaningful gift of all.