Why is the relationship between aging parents and their children often less than ideal, difficult even? Both sides are to blame usually. And mostly at the end it all comes down to control. Not necessarily over each other, but that’s not rare, too. If you think dealing with your stubborn elderly parents is an impossible task – think again. Maybe they are not stubborn, so you could as well try to understand why they are not listening to you.
Have They Changed? Almost as If They Were Not the Same People!
Aging people face a tremendous quantity of changes in their lives: their body changes, their mind tend to weaken, where muscles used to be, now might be fat or empty, sagging skin, their eyesight is not very good any more, some hearing impairment may be present, mobility problems-their gait is far from the vigorous, safe and secure one it used to be, digestion is an ongoing issue, sleeping can be a problem, bones and joints painful, not to mention the possible diseases which might have developed by now. Probably retired from work and some even widowed. Major changes.
It is not easy to accept and get accustomed to all that in a few short years and make peace with the thought of losing control over so many aspects of their lives. I have heard once it being described as if you were put onto a pebbled slope, and, no matter how hard you try balancing on the top of it, you are just sliding and sliding downwards, and there’s no way to stop until you reach the bottom. But, you might end up sliding on your backside, if you can’t manage to stay on your feet. A pretty unpleasant feeling, I’d say.
On the other side, children of aging parents used to see their parents if not ideal, but as strong individuals, who supported them through their whole life. The weakening parent is something unknown to them, something that saddens and scares at the same time. Also, triggers a feeling of deep caring and a need, (a drive) almost obligation to protect them, as if they would protect their children. Wrongly, of course! You, as their children, need to remember they are not yours. Not your children. Your parents are still your parents and you need to treat them in accordance with that.
More as a rule than an exception elderly parents accept help from their children only to a certain level. There is a point where parents will feel their children’s’ attitude to be overprotective and, while they appreciate the concern, they hate to be told what they may or may not do. They will often feel this as an attack on their freedom and independence and will fight back, or at least defend themselves.
It could be that they keep information from you, either about a recent nearly fall, or a doctor’s advice, a difficulty with housekeeping, unpaid bills, etc. It is a way to keep you from, in their opinion, unnecessary worrying. It could be that they also keep you in dark about their financial situation. This is usually not an expression of distrust in any way, but more of retaining some control over their lives. They do not want you to “take over”.
But, I Am Worried Sick….
Certainly, it is less worrying if Dad does not drive any more, due to his recently poor reflexes, or poor eyesight, and if Mom does not work in the garden any more, after she tripped over a pebble and was only lucky enough not to break her hip or something, but got away with huge bruises on her arms and legs. Or, if they would not invest part of their savings into some questionable business…
Yes, it would give you a piece of mind, but…how would you feel if suddenly forbidden to enjoy something you used to do your whole life? Imagine yourself now being told what you may or may not do. Or, remember how it was when you were just a teenager, not allowed to do what you wanted to… You need to approach issues like these very carefully.
A 2004 study, found that older adults do long for a strong connection with their children, but prefer not to be controlled in any way, retaining complete autonomy, in the same time. It is sort of “hanging on the nail” thing, as they expect their children not to interfere with their parents’ independence, but to be available for help anytime needed. Determining where exactly the line is between may be difficult, as it’s position may differ in your and in your parents’ mind.
Start with respecting their wishes. Even if every particle in your body screams against it. Especially for retaining independence and the right to make their own choices, decisions. Try not to act as if you knew better what’s good for them, even if you actually do. Aging parents like you caring about them and that’s generally what they expect to get from you. They are usually not really ready to be cared for. A huge difference.
You If you help your parents also does not and shouldn’t mean you have reversed roles now. You are not responsible for their well-being. Not legally, not morally, not anyhow. Anything you do should come out of love for them and your genuine wish to help, otherwise it will bring hard time to both sides. It might result in insisting, resisting or persisting. That’s when you’ll likely see it as them being stubborn, but usually, they just try to keep the life they had and be the people they were.
Do not to try to solve problems for them, unless you’ve been asked to. Try not to give unsolicited advices. Do not to insist on an issue they clearly do not want to go along, at least now. Try not to withhold every bad news, assuming they will crash on hearing it. Help them deal with their emotions about them. Try not to attempt to place them into a protective “bubble”. Just let them know you are there for them, if needed.
Do not to use your visits to check how well Mum can clean the house, or even worse, to clean something which she hasn’t done well enough. Try not to check the food in the fridge to make sure it’s not expired. Do not try to tidy up your Dad’s hobby garage because you think it is a mess. Try not to offend their dignity by saying something like “I’ll do it, I see it’s really not for you anymore”. Even if you meant well, do not be surprised if they won’t tell you after these when they really need help with something.
What Should I Do Then?
You have two ears and one mouth – you might want to use them in accordance. Meaning you should ask and listen to what they have to say if you want to be heard afterwards. A very bad tactic is to come with a made up mind and only declare your decision, expecting they will accept it.
You need to establish an honest, good communication. You need to be able to express frankly your concerns about what you see, but in the nicest possible way, without any accusation or blaming your parents for doing or not doing something. There is no exact script for a good conversation, but if you think ahead, go through the possible scenarios, outcomes and prepare, you have very good chances of doing it the right way and achieving your aspirations.
Start with what you observed (the bruises on your Mum’s arms, your Dad not being able to find that screw driver in his garage), then what you think is the cause of that (Mum might be insecure when walking, Dad might not have the patience to keep order) You being concerned about what comes after this (her possibly suffering a fall with serious consequences, him driving his blood pressure high over stressing for loosing something there), and now, only now comes what you want to do about it.
You want to call the OT to make an appointment, so he could make an assessment and advise either an aid, or balance exercises. When would you like to have it Mum? Dad, I want to call X (your brother, sister) so the three of us could put back things onto shelves as you would like them. Which weekend would you prefer it to happen? By involving them into a tiny part of the decision, you are giving them a feeling of some control and actually asking for their consent.
Be prepared, however, to a refusal and even possible anger. Mum thinks there’s nothing wrong with her gait and Dad likes the mess in the garage. Try not to be offended by refusal, just acknowledge it and put it aside for a while. Give them time to adjust to the thought and revisit the issue at a later point. Remember the love and respect you have for one another and be understanding. With your next attempts, gradually, it will cease to be such a strange thought for them and they might agree with you.
What If You Are the Aging Parents?
As aging inevitably gradually brings some limitations, you’ll need to accept them, as they come. If you notice them, you need to decide whether you need help, to acknowledge it, be able to ask for it and work together with your children to solve problems. It is OK if you don’t want to give up tasks you are fully able to perform, but you might do better with some others performed by someone else.
It does not mean you need to be dependent or controlled. If you get the impression that your children are scrutinizing you, whenever they ask about your health or medication you need to take, or they suggest helping you with your weekly shopping, you might be right, but also, you might be wrong.
The truth is some children indeed take an overprotective attitude towards their aging parents, usually out of loving fear for their well-being.
Still, when adult children point out concerning changes they’ve seen in you, allow for the possibility that they’re right. Try taking a step back and take another look. If you still strongly feel it is an unjust observation, you need to be careful not to overreact. Try not to take up the guard and do not try to minimize talking or meeting with your children in order to avoid being pressured. There’s a better way to resolve the issue.
An honest conversation about your advancing age and what exactly should, if anything, be done about it. The problems aroused with your age or your medical conditions are a reason to team up with your children to solve the issues, whether these are difficulties with day-to-day living, housing or financial problems. These can and should be solved in a way that preserve both control and quality of life for both generations. You will succeed if you work with and not against each other.
You also need to understand and recognize that your children want to help you avoid negative and usually painful circumstances. They are acting out of their best intentions. Also, they can’t possibly understand how you feel slowly loosing functionality, unless you help them have an insight on that. Talk about it. They will better understand you and your challenges.
Ideally, parents and adult children should talk about issues aging might trigger before the time arrives. You can help your children establish realistic expectations and to pick up the right attitude. After all, chances are that you’ve been through all that with your parents some years ago, when YOU were the aging parents’ adult child in the relationship.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Both sides are somewhat right and somewhat wrong. Do you, an adult child, still think your parents are simply stubborn? And do you, aging parents, understand why your children might think so? The good news is that you can work it out – together.
Do you have similar, or different experiences with relationship between the two generation in family? Or, do you have a different opinion? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Also, feel free to reach out should you have any questions and I’ll be happy to give you an answer to the best of my knowledge.
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