Role with Aging Parents

The blessing of today’s increased longevity has produced new challenges for adult children in managing their aging parents’ lives. Many adults are puzzled by their aging parents’ changed behaviors, habits or affect and often feel at a loss about how to best assist their elders.

According to Kevin Kinsella and Victoria Velkoff’s report in a U.S. Census Bureau Series “An Aging World: 2001”, these concerns are going to impact more and more families. “The oldest-old people, age 85 and older- constitute the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. By 2050, this population-currently 4 million people- could top 19 million. Living to 100 likely will become more commonplace; by 2050, there could be nearly one million centenarians.”

When adult children begin to observe changes in their senior parent’s behavior, cognition or temperament they are often unsure whether these symptoms are a result of ordinary aging or the advent of a disease process. They may also wonder about how their involvement with their parent’s life can be most helpful.

Initially, most adult children are pleased to assist their parents with practical tasks as needed. However, when the assistance expands to caregiving chores, financial management, frequent calls and ongoing expectations of availability, adult children may be taxed beyond their capacity to attend to their parents and concomitantly sustain their own lives.

Psychologically, when the traditional roles of parents caring for and guiding their children are reversed, it creates a hardship for both generations. This may lead to conflict, resentments, hurt emotions and confusion for all. Even loyal, attentive and loving adult children often find their new “parenting” of their parents to be extremely taxing and overwhelming. Older parents may also feel shame and even humiliation about their loss of autonomy and their newly created dependency upon their very busy children.

As elders become more physically, intellectually or emotionally frail, their children may feel ill-equipped to assess their parents’ decline and determine how to best facilitate their lives. To that end, I consulted with an excellent, local Geriatric Care Manager, Linda Welsh, Owner of Parenting Your Parent ( She recommended that adult children: 1. Hire a professional Geriatric Care Manager (GCM) to assess the physical, medical, emotional, social/spiritual needs of the elder in conjunction with the senior’s medical professionals’ recommendations. 2. Invite family members to participate in actualizing the care plan. 3. Follow the GCM’s recommendations about including outside services, as needed.

Seeking professional input will alleviate your burden, afford you the opportunity to express your concerns and guide you in finding a way to honor your parent leaving you guilt-free for life.

To help your parent:

  • Demonstrate your love by listening to your parent with respect and compassion.
  • Avoid dismissing, minimizing or discounting your parent’s concerns.
  • Abstain from arguing and proving the “truth” to your parent.  Facts are irrelevant and may be shaming.
  • Understand that this parenting reversal is hard for you and may be insufferable for your aging parent.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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