Turning the Tables

by Jon Schwartz June 27, 2016


aging julyWhen I was 6 years old, my parents and a few of my friend’s parents took us all out to McDonald’s after a soccer game. I had just finished my last Chicken McNugget when I thought it was time to play. All of my friends had already run outside and by this point they were absorbed in the jungle gym and ball pit.  To my 6-year-old eyes, they were having the time of their lives, and I desperately wanted to join them. As soon as I ran out, I heard my mom say, “Jonathan, you have bad sinuses and cannot play out there with the other boys.”

Suffering from chronic sinus infections as a kid, my mom tried to protect me from nearly every germ. No doubt, that ball pit has a few. To this day, I will not forget having to stare out the window at my friends, who were having a blast, while I had to sit on the hard plastic bench with my parents and their friends.

Fast forward to today, I see more of this over-protection but it’s going the other direction – it comes from adult children directed at their aging parents. Here’s my attempt at a poetic explanation of this:

When the kids are young their safety is key

We don’t want them to have much autonomy.

When we are old we want to just be.

But our kids only care about our safety.

Research shows that the majority of relationships between parents and their adult children improve as parents transition to older age. The interdependency created during this stage in life, between adult child and an aging parent, offers both parties tremendous benefits. It is common for the adult child to seek advice, insight, and perspective (even money) from their aging parent. The parents’ needs from their adult child may be more in the form of physical care, transportation, technological help and decisions on where to live and what to buy. However, managing this perfect interdependent relationship, on most days, may seem impossible.

Roz Chast, The New Yorker cartoonist and author of the book, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Offers a familiar sentiment to many of the families I encounter. In describing the care she provided for her aging parents, Chast writes, “I wasn’t a great caretaker, and they weren’t great at being taken care of.” It may be that an adult child underestimates their aging parent’s independence and the aging parent may overestimate their capability. Finding this middle ground takes communication, communication and communication. Having honest and open conversations before issues arise, around when to give up the car keys, when to give up control of financial affairs, and when to bring in help at home or move to a retirement community can improve quality of life and the relationship for both the adult children and their parents.

As adult children, our biggest shortfall would be to remove ourselves completely from our parent’s aging process. Unfortunately, I see this all too often. On the opposite side of the spectrum, adult children can overstep their boundaries. They infringe on decisions about what to eat, which doctor to see, where to sleep, how to pay bills and even what to say to certain people. Ultimately, the adult children come a little too close to becoming parents to their parents.   

Today, I have no sinus issues at all and I’m able to say, Thank you, mom! As my parent, her decisions revolved around keeping me safe. Whilew our relationship shifts, that will be my focus for her as well. I’ll just have to come up with something other than “You’ll understand when you’re older” to explain my overprotectiveness in the coming years.  


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