As parents age, the relationship between them and their adult children often comes to a bit of a crisis.

Roles start reversing, and this can cause some tension and confusion. Relationships that were clear and comfortable may no longer be so; those that were already problematic may come to a boiling point. Or, aging parents might be estranged from their adult children, but want to reconcile before it’s too late.  

Elderly parents may become anxious about losing their sense of self and their independence, while their adult children are trying to wrest more control. Alternatively, parents may be worried that their capabilities are diminishing, but afraid to ask for help. Adult children meanwhile might not be willing or able to take on more of a caregiving role.

An interesting study on “intergenerational ambivalence” between aging parents and their grown children revealed that “when discussing their adult children, [older parents] reveal strong desires for both autonomy and connection, leading to ambivalence about receiving assistance from them. They define themselves as independent but hope that children’s help will be available if needed. They are annoyed by children’s over protectiveness but appreciate the concern it expresses.”

These are tricky waters to navigate, so here are some suggestions for adult children who are concerned about their parents’ welfare:


Remember which one of you is the actual parent

Even as roles start to reverse, your mom and dad deserves the respect and deference that is their due. 

Surely they put up with plenty of nonsense from you when you were growing up! Of course this time can be difficult, as nearly all parent-child relationships are complicated.

If the relationship is so thorny that you just cannot get along, or old wounds were just too damaging, then you may need to minimize contact. But do your best to forgive, even if you still need to keep your distance. Resentment and bitterness are heavy, ugly feelings and it does no one any favors to harbor them. If they have been long estranged from adult children, parents may feel deep regret. Consider taking the first step towards reconnecting.


Treat them like adults

No adult, no matter his or her age, appreciates being quizzed or scolded or bossed around like a little child. Ask your parents open ended questions, find out their preferences, and if you are offering help, do so in a way that is not demeaning or takes away their dignity. Use humor when you can to keep conversations cheerful.


Observe, don’t scrutinize

Rather than harass them about their diet, or pounce on every lapse in their memory, gently observe conditions over time. Is there healthy food in the house? Are they missing appointments? Are their bills being paid on time? Are their clothes clean?


Make a plan together

Ideally, before it is needed. A family meeting can be very helpful. Include a discussion of finances: long-term care insurance, assisted living benefits, social security, etc.

Knowing the activities of daily living (ADLs) and especially the instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs) can be a great starting point. Well before your aging parent might need long term care, IADLs usually start slipping.

These warning signs would include trouble with:

    • Managing personal finances
    • Transportation, either by driving or by organizing other means of transport.
    • Shopping for food, clothing, and other necessities.
    • Meal preparation including cooking and safely using kitchen equipment and utensils.
    • Housework and home maintenance required to keep a tidy and hygienic place of residence.
    • Managing communication, such as the telephone and mail.
    • Taking medications in accurate doses and at appropriate times.


One step at a time

Seniors often worry that at the first sign of trouble, they’ll be shipped off to an assisted living facility.

Senior communal living might sound like a great idea to some older adults, but most cherish the independence and comfort of living in their own homes.

Fortunately, care in the home can be provided at many levels, starting with very minimal help. A caregiver for the elderly may be contracted to assist with housework for an hour a day. Meanwhile the caregiver and parent can be forming a relationship, and it would be pretty easy to later add in some help with meals and making sure medications are kept track of.  It can also be helpful to adult children who are feeling burned out or overburdened to substitute in some professional in-home care, a little at a time.