Education Matters: At the intersection of life

By Marsha Sutton

There is great irony at the intersection of contrasting worlds.

As children approach the end of college and face their future with the whole world before them, we have learned gradually how to let go and give them the freedom they as newly minted young adults have earned. Contrast this with our newfound role as caregivers to aging parents grappling with declining health and end-of-life issues, and you have a seismic collision of emotions that undermines normal coping mechanisms.

Watching our elderly become increasingly weak, frail and timid is juxtaposed against our adult children’s strength, confidence and boldness – with maybe a hint of apprehension and panic they both share.

Our children’s adventures we ourselves can identify with and remember from our own past, while our parents’ future we foresee as memories yet to come.

As joy and fear battle for our attention, we do our best to navigate through the confusion and emotional upheaval of being sandwiched in between.

For the first time, our adult children are coming face-to-face with a future all their own. Since birth, their lives have been planned for them. Most kids in our suburban communities follow a pre-determined path: preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school and four years of college. Ages zero to 21, their lives are laid out for them in a secure, organized manner.

And then … it’s over. They now have the freedom to do anything their hearts desire and walk whatever path they choose. They may decide to continue their education, travel, work, engage in charity missions or community service, or embark on any number of other adventures.

Sure, as younger children they had the power to make some choices. But compared with the question, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?”, deciding whether to pick baseball or soccer, violin or piano, seems trivial.

This may be one of the most exciting, yet frightening, time in their lives – filled with opportunity, anxiety and, sometimes, chaos.

While we revel in the delight and suspense of our children’s release from the programmed lives they’ve led for 21 years, the other side of life presents itself in bleak contrast. Seeing parents face an increasing inability to care for themselves is an ironic offset to the excitement of watching grown children facing a bountiful array of options.

Both parents and children may be afraid of what lies ahead – our kids because of the infinite choices before them, and our parents because of the inevitability of the singular fate that awaits them. Limitless and limited. Boundless and bound. The joys and sorrows of life.

As I come to terms with the realization that my father really shouldn’t be driving any longer, my older son is taking control over his own auto insurance and my younger son will soon have his driver’s license.

As my older son begins to understand the intricacies and mysterious language of health care – deductibles, premiums, adjustments, EOBs – he’ll take on a greater personal role in choosing doctors, informing himself of choices and options for services, selecting an insurance plan that meets his needs, and deciphering often incomprehensible bills and statements.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had to take control of my parents’ medications. I’ll never forget the pitiful look in my 90-year-old step-mother’s big, sad eyes when she gazed at me with an open palm – tentatively, hesitatingly, handing me her daily pill box containers. Once I grasped it, she sighed. In a moment of clarity, she realized she could no longer be in control of her own medication schedule and needed someone else to make sure she took the right pills at the prescribed time each day. It was a heart-breaking moment for the both of us.

It’s as if control is a zero-sum game – the amount neither increases nor decreases. We simply facilitate the transfer. One side’s grim realization that the time has come for control to be passed to another reminds us that freedom to control one’s own destiny is fleeting.

Even as we rejoice in the exhilaration of our grown children as they spread their wings and take flight, we are reminded of the cycle of passing seasons that tempers the elation.

As both children and parents prepare to traverse what lies ahead, we in the middle reach deep down for the will to provide both of them with dignity and compassion as they each embark on their separate journeys.

So we guide both the young and the old, with all the wisdom, patience and sensitivity we can muster, and pray that whatever we are doing will ease both generations’ passage into the next stages of life.

May you all enjoy the blessings and peace of a healthy and happy 2012, and may this new year be filled with kindness toward one another, generosity of spirit, courage, gratitude, love and hope.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at