When Everything Falls Apart

Remember that there is nothing stable in human affairs; therefore avoid undue elation in prosperity, or undue depression in adversity…….Socrates

The world of aging parents is a complex system. This is not simply a scientific observation; it is a critical point that most of us gloss over on the way to getting things done. Not fully appreciating the nature of complex systems can crush expectations and implode the best intentions.

Complex systems are based on immutable laws. One that is especially significant to adult children and their aging parents is the disproportionate law: minor changes in the system can produce major consequences.

All of us have experienced this painful reality but maybe thought it was bad luck or unfortunate timing. It wasn’t. It was the nonlinear ricochet of a system always on the verge of disproportionate behavior. Why is this useful?

First, it reminds us that there are no “little” changes in the world of aging parents. Any action, throwing out old magazines, scheduling an appointment without telling them, or not including a sibling in what seems a minor decision can trigger a temporary system shut down. This is the innate volatility of complex systems. To expect anything else is to make an already challenging situation nearly impossible.

Second, it allow us to set realistic expectations for all parties involved in the drama of aging parents. No amount of planning, effort, or hyper-vigilance can overcome the disproportionate law. If you are defining success as an adult child in terms of preserving system stability, then the odds of being successful are close to nil.

Better to define success in terms of caregiver aikido skills, meaning how well you flex, adjust, and re-channel the predictable upheaval of disproportionate events until they run their course. This gives you a fighting chance to reduce the impact of irrational dramas that take a nasty toll everyone who gets in their way.