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Successful Aging: The challenge of maintaining independence as we get older

Q. Our kids think we are ancient. All four of them want to be part of too many of our decisions, regardless of whether or not we feel it is necessary. That includes medical ones, our driving abilities, travel arrangements and more. We welcome their help with technology and appreciate their thoughtfulness. For example, they recently bought my husband walking sticks to replace the cane he was using. We love them all. Yet, how can we let them know we appreciate all that they are doing for us yet would like to have greater autonomy and less scrutiny. G.S.

Most of us have heard of the term “helicopter parents.” They are moms and dads who hover over their children to protect them from failure or missed opportunities. This same hovering syndrome can be applied to overprotective adult children. They are the “helicopter (adult) children” who cannot stop worrying about their aging parents. 

Independence is a value instilled in us from the time we are born; it’s a sign of being a grown-up. It’s a time when independent people are responsible for their own decisions, relationships, and finances as well as successes and failures. This desire to be independent does not diminish with age. Rather it becomes more important. 

Being independent in later life means having control over certain aspects of our lives that can create feelings of confidence, self-worth and well-being as well as promoting a sense of achievement. 

Here is the conundrum. Older parents and their adult children often differ on how they view independence and may disagree on what is “caring” and what is “controlling.” Most older adults want to be “cared about” and are afraid of being “cared for.” A research study conducted by Mary Gallant and Glenna Spitze from the State University of New York found that older parents often have mixed feelings in their relationships with their children. Parents want both autonomy and connection, which often leads to feelings of ambivalence when receiving their assistance. 

Let’s try to understand this impasse from the younger generation’s perspective. Adult children often are on the lookout for potential problems before they occur. They want to fix a volatile situation before it explodes. And if adult children live some distance away, the perception of an impending crisis may seem even more acute. With all good intentions, adult children want to save their parents from a disaster. In doing so, they may overanalyze the situation and apply pressure to their parents to make some changes before they are ready for them. At the same time, their concern may be valid and their suggestions and actions may prevent a problem or keep an existing problem from getting worse. Their value cannot be underestimated. 

Now let’s try to understand this impasse from the older generation’s perspective who value independence. Older adults may be unaware of changes in their own level of functioning and feel they are being scrutinized for no reason. Their children may quiz them about their medications, look at the expiration dates of yogurt in the refrigerator and offer a questioning look if an older parent has a moment of memory lapse. Parents may begin to feel incompetent and even nervous about their children’s visits. Again,as a 2016 Atlantic magazine story said, this older generation wants to feel cared for and not controlled.

Negative stereotypes about aging can complicate the dynamics. Adult children may see their parents in need of help while their parents reject anything that would identify them as “old” or vulnerable, feeling that aging is something to be resisted or denied. Our culture considers vulnerability as a sign of failure, according to Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity as quoted in USA Today on July 8, 2021. 

A conversation is the path to solutions. Here are some tips for adult children to consider:

Acknowledge that older parents may be part of the “Silent Generation” (born between 1928-1945) and are not used to discussing personal issues.
Ask older parents about their concerns, be a soundingboard and provide feedback. 
Ask questions and show a willingness to understand other perspectives.
Know that your parents make the final decisions. Note there may be extenuating circumstances when this is not the case. 

Here are some tips for older parents:

Be realistic about how aging may be affecting you. 
Be open to suggestions and accept support when it is necessary. 
Express your honest feelings if you feel that your autonomy is at risk.
If needed, see a healthcare provider to determine your level of functioning to help validate your position or that of your adult children.

Consider trying some of the suggestions as a trial. 

G.S., Thank you for your important question. Stay well everyone and as a gentle reminder: “Be kind to yourself and share it with the world.” – Unknown

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity

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