Most of us come into the world seeing our parents as healthy, strong, and everlasting. As we grow older and they get older, the naive feeling that they are an integral part of our life fades. Their hearing weakens, their gait slows down, their memories darken, and for adult children, the experience can cause feelings of anger, anxiety, fear and frustration.
“Many people find it difficult to witness the age-related decline in their parents’ functioning,” said Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University and director of its Center on Longevity. “Cultural scripts that greatly value agency and autonomy equate vulnerability with failure. By taking this message to its extreme, we all fail at some point. “
It’s a stressful transition, experts say, when adult children begin to see their parents less as capable caregivers and more as those in need of care themselves. Children begin to wonder how quickly a decline will accelerate, how financially sound their parents are, what their future life situation will be. Changing roles between child and parent can challenge family dynamics, made more complicated by negative stereotypes about aging, which contribute to the feeling that getting older is something people must resist or deny.
“It’s a weird change from when they were responsible for you. Now you could be responsible for them, and they don’t listen to your commands like an 8 year old would,” said Alan Castel, senior researcher at UCLA’s Memory. & Lifespan Cognition Lab and author of “Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging”.
A desire to deny the decline
There is a subtle bereavement that children experience when their aging parents begin to lose their function. Children may want to deny their parents’ decline, which experts say may be amplified by a culture that suggests aging needs to be fought or hidden.
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Hair dye and wrinkle cream are adopted while hearing aids and walkers are avoided.
Negative stereotypes about aging can complicate the dynamic between adult children who see their parents in need of help and parents who are inclined to reject anything that identifies them as older or more vulnerable.
“When you think of an older person you might think wise or kind, but explicitly and implicitly we also think of older people as smelly, slow, bad, stubborn or cranky drivers,” Castel said.
The challenges of the “sandwich generation”
The natural and normal constraints of struggling with an aging parent are made all the more difficult by the competing demands for care.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent 65 or older and are raising a young child or financially supporting a child 18 or older. About one in seven people financially support both an elderly parent and a child.
Of all adults with at least one parent aged 65 or older, 30% say their parents need help taking care of themselves. The same figure goes for emotional support.
These adults are part of what experts call the “sandwich generation,” those who care for both their own children and aging parents. The relentless financial and emotional stress of both can take its toll and lead to what Castel calls “caregiver stress”, especially when the aging parent does not want care.
That feeling that you can’t name? :This is called emotional exhaustion.
“There is so much frustration in wanting to respect a parent but also to help,” he said.
Communicate, choose battles and seek support
When a parent’s health deteriorates, good communication can ease the transition.
“It’s about thinking about how to communicate things effectively without being patronizing,” Castel said. “Sometimes he says, ‘I love you and I’m doing this because it can improve your life in a way. I know it’s uncomfortable.'”
Castel suggests asking older parents questions such as “Do you like it when I do this?” Or “Do you know why I’m doing this?”
An older parent may say, “I hate it when you tell me to wear a hearing aid. But the child may respond with, “Well, I feel like I have to repeat things or sometimes you miss things. I’m happy to repeat things if it’s important, but it gives me some frustration. ”
Children must choose their battles. If a parent’s hearing is decreasing, but they can still participate in a conversation, perhaps do not press down on the hearing aid. If memory fades, but no one gets lost when they get home, continuing to observe may be a good strategy.
Children can be clear with their parents that they may not be able to do as much as they used to, while reassuring their parents that they will do their best to help them participate in the activities that are most meaningful to them. .
Children can also help navigate the transition by seeking support, whether it’s siblings or caregiver support groups.
“Accepting aging and mortality can be liberating”
Growing old is normal, even if our culture suggests otherwise. Experts say it’s important for people to embrace the process and recognize that there are things that get better with age. Seniors can be emotionally smarter, smarter, and more deliberate in ways that serve them well.
“The reality is that virtually all people will experience physical problems as they age,” Carstensen said. “The problem is less avoiding the inevitable and more living a satisfying life with limitations. Accepting aging and mortality can be liberating.”
Acceptance can be the goal, although watching a parent grow old can be difficult not only because of what happens to them, but also because of what the child knows will happen to them as well.
“It scares us,” Castel said. “We think, ‘It might be me someday. And in fact, if all goes well, it’ll be me someday.’ One thing to tell you is, “How do I want my child to treat me?” “