10/25/2013 07:15 am ET Updated Dec 25, 2013

The Best Years Of My Life... Were The Last Years Of My Parents' Lives

I made a commitment. . .

I told my husband I was going to make my parents a top priority in my life. He agreed. On my mom's 80th birthday in 1999, we physically moved my parents to a new home less than a mile from our house. We equipped the place with everything an octogenarian needed to "age in place." Walk-in tubs, higher toilets, grab bars, ramps (no steps), louder telephones and doorbells. Plus, it was only 1.5 miles from a major hospital, a quarter mile from a shopping center and within walking distance to three churches.

Both my parents still drove, so I was not taking on the role of a caretaker. They were very self-sufficient. So much so that if I called or went over and they were not there, I worried. "What are they doing out at midnight?" or "Don't they know the roads are icy?" (I think this is known as role reversal).

My dad, a former logistics officer in WWII, was the adventurous one. He loved to travel and my husband and I became their traveling companions. Every year, we took a major trip with them for 10 days to two weeks. Trips like the last transatlantic cruise of the QEII, the Orient Express, Canadian Rockies by Rail and at least seven cruises. We even returned to the town where my dad was stationed during the war prior to his landing on Normandy Beach. Several long weekend jaunts to Washington DC, Gettysburg, the Berkshires and even Maine were included as part of our adventures. Traditionally, Labor Day was reserved for Ocean City, New Jersey. We have twelve wonderful years of memories.

Besides the trips there were bi-monthly, formal military dinner dances with a live band and a multi-course meal. Every New Years Eve, my father would buy a table for 10 at a local venue for dinner, dancing and an open bar. We'd invite family and friends. He was a party animal, also very generous.

Sunday Morning Pancakes

Almost every Sunday morning when we weren't traveling, dad would make us either pancakes (from scratch) or Belgian waffles. After breakfast, we would read the Sunday paper, watch "Meet the Press" on TV and do the crossword puzzle. Sunday nights were mom and dad's date night. He had scoped out every restaurant in the county. He should have been a food critic. On our birthday or anniversary, we'd be invited.

These memories are invaluable and will remain with me forever. I was always close to my mom, but my dad was a bit distant until these last years. I developed a new relationship with him that I only dreamed existed. I was able to see him as a caring and romantic husband, a loyal friend, a war hero, a writer, a cook, and a fabulous father. What a loving gift.

Honoring WWII Veterans

One of the highlights of all our adventures was Veteran's Day 2011 at Lincoln Financial Field. The Philadelphia Eagles where honoring local vets and Tammy Reid selected my Mom and Dad to be her guest in her deluxe sky box. She gave us the royal treatment (I cannot thank her enough). After the second time out, in the second quarter my mom and dad stood so that the cameras could focus on them as their image appeared on the Jumbotron. The announcer bellowed: "Colonel Charles Hangsterfer and Captain Geneva Campbell Hangsterfer, Veterans of World War II." The place went wild! They received a standing ovation. I was never so proud. Little did I know that it would be their last Veteran's Day.

In the winter of 2011, my dad's health started failing; heart, lungs, agility. Mom started walking down the dark path of dementia. We leaned into the caretaking role with various emergency room runs, doctor's visits, plus as much physical and emotional support as we could give. Along with being their healthcare advocate we were also the "chief, cook and bottle washer." Every caretaker, like every parent knows this role all too well.

My Worst Fear

My dad died in March of 2012, and my mom passed five months later. They were 93 years old. My worst fear, losing my parents, both in such a short time was realized. Yet, I was calm and at peace. I surprised myself. What is wrong with me? I kept thinking. I should be falling apart, having a breakdown, being a real screaming idiot. But then I realized that it was their time. We had no words left unspoken, no hurts unhealed, no love unrealized. Sure, I would love to have taken one more trip, but I beam with the satisfaction of knowing we enjoyed all the trips we had taken. Truly unforgettable.

I know not everyone can or would even want to do what my husband and I did with my parents. It did take a toll on us financially. We are in the process of rebuilding our business (we work together). However when we think about the times we had, the lessons we learned about "aging with dignity," the unique experiences we shared, in our hearts we know that there is not enough money in the world that could ever buy these things.

Five Wishes

There is a document I would like to share that may help you connect with a parent or loved one. It is called Five Wishes. It is in the form of a "Living Will." But it also allows a person, not good with words, to communicate personal feelings, as well as spiritual and emotional wishes, to those they are leaving behind. Feel free to download a sample pdf.

Link to Five Wishes --

Peggie Walsh

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

7 Tips For Caregivers