The Adult Child/Aging Parent Relationship: Minefields, Misunderstandings And Methods For Improvement

Tensions are often introduced into adult child/aging parent relationships as both parties attempt to manage an older parent’s encroaching change in status.

It may come as no surprise that the two generations tend to view the situation from entirely different angles.  While the adult children may be attempting to calculate just how close to calamity their parents really are, their parents may be attempting to calculate just how well they can keep their children from controlling them and “taking over”.

The true crux of the often-unacknowledged conflict may lie in a simple idea: If, in fact, one or both parents has registered a decline in function, what exactly should be done about it and who gets to decide?

The Younger Generation

Adult children of older parents may sense that something is going to be required of them when their parents’ lack of functional ability reaches a certain tipping point.  This can certainly be an anxiety-inducing prospect.  Adult children, often at the peak of their careers and still raising children, are harried, stressed and unequipped to handle a great deal more.

Perhaps owing to a strong desire to avoid a poorly-timed emergency, adult children may begin to ask slightly intrusive questions about assets, bill-paying, medication use, personal habits, and performance behind the wheel that they have never asked before.  They are scanning the horizon for potential trouble with an eye toward fixing the situation before it explodes.  When geographic distance is a factor, the imperative to get in front of crisis feels especially acute.

The intentions of the adult children are usually good.  They care about their parents and want to minimize any harm that could befall them because of poor functional ability.  They want to prevent disaster.  They may overanalyze a potential issue and push their parents to accept help before the older generation is ready, before they really need it, to be assured that the middle-of-the-night call never comes.

Their parents, however, see it differently.

The Older Parent Perspective

Aging parents may not register any change in their own status, but take full measure of the change in their children.  After years of enjoying a lovely kinship with their adult children, they suddenly feel scrutinized.  Their children comment on the need to dust or vacuum, peruse the mail, check the expiration dates of the yogurt in the refrigerator, quiz them about medications and eye each other knowingly when a parent exhibits a small memory lapse.

Older parents may feel their children view them as incompetent.  They may begin to feel nervous about visits, afraid they won’t pass some unspoken “test” their children are administering.  Some parents begin to avoid interactions with children if they anticipate pressured questioning, badgering and unsolicited recommendations to move to a senior facility.

For the most part, the senior generation wants to feel cared for but not controlled. They appreciate the concern their children show as an indicator of love.  But they don’t want to give up tasks they are fully able to perform or give up a home they occupy with great contentment.  They want to have a say – the final word – when decisions about their care are considered.

Navigating Tricky Territory

The ideal approach to resolving tensions in the relationship is to engage in honest conversation about the parents’ advancing age and what, if anything, is to be done about it.  Age, in and of itself, is not a reason to make sweeping changes.  But other problems may well warrant a conversation about working as a team to solve the issues at hand – loneliness/isolation, sensory impairments, and bill-paying or insurance difficulties, for example, are all “fixable” problems that do not necessarily require grand change.

As adult children, it’s important for us to approach our parents with respect.  Unless they have been adjudicated incompetent, they remain free to make their own decisions.  We can ask them to help identify circumstances that, to their minds, would justify having a caregiver or moving to a senior living community, for example.  Try to elicit from them how they view these forms of assistance, and what they mean to them.  Assure them that having help does not mean a person is dying, incompetent or a failure.  It simply means they do better at this stage of life with some of their daily tasks performed by someone else.

As aging parents, it’s just as important for us to recognize that our children want to help us avoid very negative and painful circumstances.  They have never been 80 or 85 and have little or no understanding of how it feels to slowly lose functionality.  Tell them about it.  Help them understand.  And when adult children point out concerning changes they’ve seen in us, we might do well to consider the truth in their words.  Allow for the possibility that they’re right.

It will serve all concerned to start talking about issues of aging before they become real problems.  Try to build that candor early, and be realistic and honest about expectations and attitudes.  Acknowledge that degrees of dependence and independence fluctuate throughout the stages of life – we’ve all been depended upon, and we have all depended on others.

The later chapters in life are just one of the times in our journey where we may accept more assistance than we give.  This is not a comment on how successfully we’ve aged.  It’s not a comment on anything.  It’s just a simple reality and one we may have struggled to help our own parents see a few years back when the shoe was on the other foot.

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