A professional acquaintance of mine, Ruth Nemzoff, who teaches at Brandeis, recently sent me a copy of her new book, Don't Roll Your Eyes - Making In-Laws into Family. Though her topic is broader than just the retirement years, there is a lot of overlap, because most of the book deals with relationships between the generations - with the parents-in-law often being of retirement age, or close to it.
And in any case, the relationships generally continue into that period of life. As Dr. Nemzoff makes clear, with the older generation often serving as baby-sitters, mentors, financiers, and sometimes home providers for the younger generation, and with the younger generation often eventually serving the same or very similar functions for the older generation, the aging of the parents and parents-in-law has an impact, often a very potent one, on their children and children-in-law.
We all know cases where the children have, in effect, become the parents. As someone who has been on the child-become-parent side of that transaction, and who dreads the thought of ending up on the other side of it some day, I have learned to take these issues very seriously. And so I was glad to have the opportunity to read Dr. Nemzoff's book, and I recommend it to anyone who has in-law issues. Her observations are very astute, and her advice very wise.
Of course, as in any relationship where there are problems, and for that matter in those where there are no problems, communication (or lack of it) is at the center. What we say, how we say it, what we communicate in other ways (by our actions, or by our body language or facial expressions), when we communicate, what tone we use, and in what circumstances - all of this makes a difference. Even more important, of course, is how we feel and what we think about others, and whether those feelings and thoughts are fair and considerate. But we don't have to communicate everything we think or feel, and generally it's best that we don't. So the conversations we do have with others are usually the focal point of our relationships, and determine whether those relationships succeed, and whether they lead to further conversations and actions that are helpful.
As we age, those conversations, especially with children and children-in-law, are vitally important. There are many opportunities for each generation to help the other in significant ways, and for each to make the other's lives happier in smaller ways. Dr. Nemzoff emphasizes opportunities and modes of conversation that strengthen the relationship. She also underscores the importance of communicating information.
Conversations are really necessary at different times. For instance, when a recently married couple is starting a family, they and their own parents should discuss expectations the new parents may have about baby-sitting help (wanted or not) and that the older parents may have from their own standpoint (available or not). There should eventually be some understanding about whether the older generation is financially self-sufficient, and where they want their money to go when they die, assuming there is any left. The older generation, conversely, may have expectations about receiving caregiving help from the children or children-in-law, perhaps even expecting to move in with their children when the elders can't take care of themselves any more. But the younger generation may not be willing to do this, or not able to, or maybe has never thought about it.
Even if all parties see themselves as independent, there are still important conversations to have. What happens to the grandchildren if something happens to their parents? Who makes healthcare decisions for the older generation if they become unable to make them for themselves, and what would their wishes be for medical care if they became mentally incapacitated? And in that case, what other concerns or plans do they have, and how can the younger generation fulfill these?
It's important to have these conversations at some point, and not to put them off until it's too late. Dr, Nemzoff's book addresses some of them. Another good resource regarding end-of-life care is The Conversation Project. These can be touchy, difficult subjects, and need to be pursued with sensitivity. But they are very worth having, because they will prevent a lot of future problems.
Chuck Yanikoski is a part-time retirement adviser who lives and works in Harvard. For more about him, or to contact him directly, visit www.ChuckYRetirement.com