It is hard to be an adult child caring for an aging parent. But it is also hard to be an aging parent being cared for by an adult child. One solution: Think of this relationship as a partnership, not as one family member providing a service to another.
Indeed, the phrase “care partners” is catching on in some corners of the family caregiving world. But whether the description works for you or not, don’t ignore the idea behind it.
Two recent events have me thinking about this. Last Saturday, I spoke to a group of mostly older adults—many in their 90s—about the ethical and religious values that frame the way we care for our parents. A key for people of nearly all faith traditions is the importance of honoring and respecting parents. But what does that really mean?
Then, I read a fascinating story by Clare Ansberry in The Wall Street Journal (paywall) about helicopter children. You’ve heard about helicopter parents—those moms and dads who obsess over how to protect their young children from the risks of life. Well, helicopter children, it seems, are those who can’t stop worrying about their aging parents. Should they stay in their home? What if they fall? Is it time to stop driving?
These are not trivial questions. And there often comes a time when they need to be asked. But, if not used with care, they can be corrosive and counterproductive.
Which brings us back to the ethical underpinnings of family caregiving. For Christians and Jews, the starting point is the Fifth Commandment in the Hebrew Bible, usually translated as “honor your father and mother.” Later, the book of Leviticus, we are told to “respect our mother and father.”
The Quran says, “Whether one or more attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor.” Hindus are taught to “serve” their parents, especially in old age. Buddhism teaches that children should respect aging parents, and that one form of respect is listening to their advice.
Parenting your parents.
What do respect and honor mean? Well, here is what it does not mean: In self-help books and blogs, you may come across the phrase, “parenting your parents,” or, even worse, “You have become your parents, and they have become your children.”
While the time may come when you have to help your parents perform the most intimate physical tasks, and even help them make decisions, they will never be your children. To treat them as if they are is to dishonor and disrespect your aging parents. As long as they are cognitively able to make decisions, frail seniors have the right to make their own choices. Even if you disagree with them. That’s what respect is all about.
And that’s where those helicopter children go so far off course.
Starting a conversation with, “mom, you have to…” not only shows a profound lack of respect, it is a recipe for failure. You wouldn’t start a conversation with a spouse that way (at last you wouldn’t if you wanted to accomplish anything).
After my talk, a man who was in his early 90s but looked and acted like he was 15 years younger, complained to me about an adult child who insisted on driving him to a family event just a few miles from his home. Of course, I don’t know what their conversation really was like. But the man certainly felt that his child was saying that he didn’t trust him to drive even a short distance.
That’s poor communication at the very least and a lack of respect at worst. At a time when many older adults are trying hard to maintain their independence, telling them that they can’t drive can be hurtful, not helpful.
It is all about talking
At the same time, as one of the attendees at this event reminded me, respect must be a two-way street. Children must respect parents, but aging parents also must respect their children and their desire to help.
In the end, it all comes down to talking. Nothing shows less respect than assuming you know what your parent wants, without actually asking. I know, your mom may not want to have that conversation but there are ways to encourage it. And often, she does want to talk. She just needs a little nudge.
Another participant at last Saturday’s event was a woman in her 80s who had it nailed. She told me she invited her three adult sons to lunch and laid it all out: She told them exactly where she wanted to move once if she becomes too frail to take care of herself. They worked out which of her sons will take on which tasks should she need assistance. She even told them about her funeral plans.
She’s my new role model. I asked if she’d be willing to join me in future talks. I wish had had known to ask her about the helicopters.