Parenting an Elder Parent
As we get older, aging from childhood, to young adulthood, adulthood ultimately into elderhood, we transition into ever increasing amounts of responsibility. As child, your responsibilities were few and far between. Get to school on time, do your homework, clean the dishes. As you got older and transitioned into adulthood, your responsibilities grew. Now you had to take care of bills, take care of your own home, maintain a career or an income. And with children of your own, the responsibility became even greater.
It’s easy to forget that our parents experienced the same life before we did. They too were kids once. They too once sat in their backyard, watching older kids get their license and drive around with their friends, wishing “if only I was a few years older…” But as the realities of life catch up to us, and our place in the world becomes less individual and more focused on our spouse, our children, we forget what it’s like to be unable to function completely as an adult.
Much like a kid who just isn’t tall enough to reach the jar on the top shelf, or self-aware enough to remember to brush their teeth every night, our older parents also experience limitations, physically and mentally. But these limitations come after a long life of independence and self-sufficiency. And as such, limitations can be hard for elders to acknowledge, admit and finally, accept and manage. Finding themselves to be ‘less’ than who they were is hard enough, never mind needing to ask for help from children they spent decades raising from infancy. This is a tall and heroic order; to acknowledge you
need help, that you are no longer the one leading the way! Often, this shift is met with enormous resistance and lots of emotion.
It’s important to remember that the dynamic between an adult child and an elder parent is different than the relationship between a young child and middle-aged parent. For one thing, a young child has a limited life experience, and the parent is there to provide a guiding hand through the trials and obstacles of life. As the parent ages into elderhood, and their child ages into adulthood, the dynamic changes into a similar relationship to the one they had decades earlier.
Perhaps an elder parent has trouble paying their bills on time or responds to scam emails recklessly. Much like a teenager needs guidance on proper financial responsibility, an elder parent, going through changes of aging, may need outside assistance in order to function healthily and happily. Many elder parents are uncomfortable with this change, as they still feel like adults, like parents, like the responsible generation. But the torch has passed in some ways, and it’s important for us as family members to recognize the difficulty of this change.
Elder parents are still our parents. They still have years and years of experience beyond us. Their lives have been filled with wonderful stories and adventures, and we can learn much from them. In our new role and responsibility of caring for our elders, it is important that we maintain the respect for their experience and for their independence. Rather than forcefully instruct our parents, who may be struggling with new physical, cognitive and emotional ailments, it’s better to instead work together, as adults. Perhaps an elder parent can no longer mow their own lawn, but offering an alternative, such as hiring a neighborhood teen or a lawn care company (which they can manage) is a better solution than simply pointing out their change in ability.
Don’t announce that you're helping them now because they can’t do it themselves! Partner with them, give them the power of decision making by giving them options and respecting their ability to make choices, no matter how small. ‘Mom, do you want me to pick up some groceries for you on Tuesday or Friday?’, a simple statement that gives them the power to choose and a sense of their own independence. Or a reminder, ‘thanks for letting me help; you’ve helped me so much, it’s nice for me to do something for you!’ shows appreciation and acknowledges them for the support they’ve given along the way.
Our parents are still our parents, and we are still their children, no matter the age.