Relating to adult children — 05 February 2006
The role adult children should take with their elderly parents

With advances in medical care, technology and lifestyle changes people today live longer. This privilege comes with certain challenges for mature adults who need to care for themselves as well as help their elderly parents.

In the past, the “sandwich generation” referred to people raising teenagers and attending to their senior parents’ needs at the same time. Now, the care of the elderly has extended for many years beyond raising children.

Some adult children stay very involved with their parents, while others abstain from visiting or caring for them.

Some of those who do not stay connected with their parents attribute it to a painful childhood. They harbor unresolved hurtful feelings that hamper their warmth for their parents. Others are repelled by their parents’ interaction style that may be controlling, demanding, entitled, critical, or disapproving. Some attribute their distancing from their parents to the elders’ negativity, complaints, fears and unhappiness that are hard to tolerate. Some harbor resentments for a parent’s one time grave offense, which they are unwilling to forgive. More benign causes for lack of close contact is the younger generation being overwhelmed with their own lives or the pursuit of their own activities that consume most of their time.

Adult children who do stay in touch their elders do so for many reasons. Some love and appreciate their parents and enjoy spending time with them. Others visit their parents out of obligation and duty. The concern for the parents’ well being motivates many adults to provide supervision, suggestions and assistance in the areas of health, household chores, financial matters and personal safety. Still others yearn for expressed parental love they still lack. Or they may be in competition with their siblings for a “favored child” status, even at the sunset of their own lives. For yet others, greed may be a motivator for being present for their elders in anticipation of eventual financial rewards.

Whatever the adult children’s primary motivation, their parents appreciate the help, attention and companionship, even if they are not effusive with their gratitude. Elderly parents need their children’s attention and yearn for time together. It helps fill the void of isolation and validates the seniors’ significance and worth. Even brief visits are enriching to the elderly, who live vicariously through the experiences of their children and grandchildren.

What the elderly also desire is the opportunity to stay independent and in control of their lives as long as possible. They may resent and resist recommendations that feel restrictive of their autonomy such as: discontinuing driving, relocating to a senior facility, giving up the management of their finances, rearranging their space or routine. Being mobile and self-directed supports the illusion of youth and vitality, which no one wishes to abdicate.

Elders also resist any implication that their level of functioning may be compromised. Even very intelligent older parents often refuse to face evidence suggesting that their memory, capacity for self-care or competency is diminished and that they need to make appropriate adjustments.

So what should be the role of adult children in regard to their elderly parents?

• Except for rare situations, adult children need to stay in touch with their parents even if their parents have not earned that privilege. “Honor your father and mother” concludes with “so that your days will be lengthened”. It does not implore adult children to love their parents, just to respect them, so that the children will live longer at peace with themselves.

• Those who do not have fond feelings for their parents should do the least amount of care, yet enough to feel that they have been responsible children and will be guilt free once their parents pass on. Justifying shunning the elders for whatever reasons only damages the adult children’s self-regard.
• If the elders are negative, critical and unpleasant to be with, strong boundaries need to be set. They are to be advised that this attitude will shorten the visit or the frequency of contacts. If followed through, this method often renders great results.
• Autonomy, independence and self-sufficiency are issues of health and wellbeing for the elderly and need to be fostered as long as possible.
• Adult children should not interfere as long as the elderly function well. If concerns about safety or competency arise, a physician or a neuropsychologist should be hired to assess and recommend a plan for the elderly parents to be reinforced by a person whom the elders respect.

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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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