The voice on the other end sounded desperate. “I love my kids, but they’re trying to take over my life! Help!”
As mediators with a specialty in mediating adult family communication, my partner and I get a lot of calls about aging parents and their kids. More often it’s a son or daughter calling. But regardless of who starts the conversation, it’s almost always the same issue.
The children are worried about the parent’s health or safety. The parents care more about maintaining their autonomy and they’re not letting it go without a fight. And nobody’s listening to the other’s concerns. In fact, they may be afraid to even begin the conversation.
“I don’t want my kids to tell me what to do!” That’s understandable. Before the child was even born, the parents were making their own important life decisions. Some issues haven’t changed: When to see a doctor. How to spend their money. Where to live. With whom?
Now Mom and Dad are 70 or 80 or maybe even older, and they are still fiercely clinging to their independence. Unless a parent has dementia or is a danger to others (for instance, driving erratically), they still have the right to decide. They even have the right to make bad decisions. But there are steps both parents and kids can take to ease the tensions and deepen understanding.
Children can begin by acknowledging the parents’ right to decide.
In my own family, my parents were living in Florida while I was in Washington, D.C. with a career and family. They were in their mid-80’s and my mother had dementia. Dad was her only caregiver and a fiercely independent man. He was not to about to admit he needed help.
I realized I could never persuade him to move closer to me (or into my home) by stressing that he and Mom needed help. So for a long time I didn’t even bring it up. But then he fell—carrying a load of lumber!—and had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital where he was admitted. I had to drop everything to fly south.
I knew he loved me, so I talked about my own needs, not his. “Dad, it would really help me if you and Mom would decide to live with us or at least close by. You know how much I love you, and I’ll always come if you need me. But we have room for an apartment in our basement. You could come and go as you please. You could help design it. That way, if Mom needs help, you’ll have an extra hand.”
Within a couple of months they had moved in. (And he built the kitchen himself.)
Parents can acknowledge the love behind the nagging, and respond to their children’s legitimate concerns.
So you’re not ready for role reversal. Okay. But parents should try to really hear their children’s concerns and to give them some weight. Are they worried about your health? How about getting a checkup to allay their fears? Or simply sharing the names and contact information of your doctors? Or inviting a child to accompany you to a doctor? Sharing medical information may be enough to convince them you are taking care of business.
If they want you to move, ask why. Would it be a good idea to hire a cleaning person or organizer to help downsize your stuff? What would convince them you’re safe? Something simple like adding a walk-in shower, or safety bars in the bath, or an extra railing on the stairs?
And what will you do if (no, when) a serious situation arises? Do you have a Plan B? If you do, share it. If not, make one. Together.
If a face-to-face encounter feels too intimating, a mediated (and frank) conversation can often improve difficult family dynamics. The presence of a neutral third person (pastor, social worker, or trained mediator) can lower the temperature, increase a feeling of safety, and deepen understanding.
It really is possible to attend to your own health and safety, share information, and keep on making your own decisions.