What Aging Parents Want From Their Kids

There’s a fine line between caring and controlling—but older adults and their grown children often disagree on where it is.

A young child hugs an older person sitting on a park bench.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Several years ago, I wrote a book aimed at helping adult children of my generation manage the many challenges of caring for our aging parents. I interviewed women and men across the country about their struggles and successes. I also spoke with members of the helping professions: geriatricians, social workers, elder-law attorneys, administrators of assisted-living facilities, and just about anyone and everyone who I thought could shed light on the subject. Everybody, that is, except the aging parents.

That now strikes me as a glaring omission. No doubt it’s because I’ve since become an aging parent that I find myself looking at the matter of parent care from a different perspective. I nod in agreement when the son of a friend expresses concern to me about his dad driving after dark, but I also understand when my friend, his father, complains of “being badgered by my kids about my driving.” He and his children may have different answers to the situation’s key questions: How serious a problem is the father’s driving? And how capable is the father of making his own decisions?  Certainly there are situations where an adult child’s intervention in the ailing parent’s life is clearly needed, but what if this isn’t one of those times?

As parents get older, attempts to hold on to our independence can be at odds with even the most well-intentioned “suggestions” from our children. We want to be cared about but fear being cared for. Hence the push and pull when a well-meaning offspring steps onto our turf.

Another case in point: My friend Julia and I recently met at a local museum. She’s 75, a retired editor and volunteer docent. Over lunch, we caught up on family news—kids, grandkids. She took out an iPhone to show me pictures. I asked about her daughter, who had recently moved back to the East Coast from Chicago. “It must be nice to see her more often,” I said.

Julia sighed. “Yes, but—” she said.  “Whenever Brenda drops by, I’m not sure whether she’s come to visit or to check up on me: Does my home meet the clean test? Is the yogurt in my refrigerator long past its ‘use by’ date?”

“I feel like I’m constantly being assessed,” she concluded.

I have some idea of what she means. My husband and I have taken to checking the due dates of groceries prior to a visit from any of our three sons. They’ve even got the grandkids going through my spice cabinet. For them it’s a game, except I don’t feel like playing. Ten years ago, I probably would have joined in the fun. Now I’m more sensitive to being criticized.

A week later, I found myself discussing the same thing with Elinor, another friend of mine. We had been talking about a number of recently aired tributes to Frank Sinatra when we blocked on the name of another singer of that era. “I see an M,” I said. Running through the alphabet often works for me. Triumphantly, Elinor came up with the right answer: Mel Torme. She was relieved.

“My son and daughter-in-law have made me very self-conscious about my memory,” Elinor told me. “Whenever they catch me in a lapse like not knowing the day’s date—I mean, I know it’s a Thursday, but is it the 21st or 22nd of the month?” Whenever she has trouble finding the right word, “they exchange these long, meaningful looks.” The only thing their scrutiny accomplished, she told me, was putting her on edge when they spent time together.

Has she talked to them about her feelings? No, she said. “I do enjoy their company, but I also find myself looking for excuses to see them less often.”

So what are older parents looking for in relationships with their adult children? In a 2004 study, two professors from the State University of New York at Albany, the public-health professor Mary Gallant and the sociologist Glenna Spitze, explored the issue in interviews with focus groups of older adults. Among their findings: Their participants “express strong desire for both autonomy and connection in relations with their adult children, leading to ambivalence about receiving assistance from them. They define themselves as independent but hope that children’s help will be available as needed. They are annoyed by children’s overprotectiveness but appreciate the concern it expresses. They use a variety of strategies to deal with their ambivalent feelings, such as minimizing the help they receive, ignoring or resisting children’s attempts to control …”

“One of the scariest things to people as they age is that they don’t feel in control anymore,” says Steven Zarit, a professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. “So if you tell your dad not to go out and shovel snow, you assume that he’ll listen. It’s the sensible thing. But his response will be to go out and shovel away … It’s a way of holding on to a life that seems to be slipping back.”

Whether that means he’s independent or intransigent depends on who’s making the call. A recent study by Zarit  and his colleagues looked at parental stubbornness as a complicating factor in intergenerational relationships. Not surprisingly, adult children were more likely to say their parents were acting stubborn than the parents were to see the behavior in themselves. Understanding why parents may be “insisting, resisting, or persisting in their ways or opinions,” the study reads, can lead to better communication. Zarit’s advice to the adult child: “Do not pick arguments. Do not make a parent feel defensive. Plant an idea, step back, and bring it up later. Be patient.”

But that goes both ways. I speak from experience when I say that too often, parents engage in magical thinking—our children should have known x, or should have done y—and then we’re disappointed if they don’t come through. The onus here is on us older parents to speak up. The clearer we are in describing our feelings and stating our needs, the better our chances of having those needs met.

Karen Fingerman, who was a co-author on Zarit’s study, suggests a different approach. A professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, Fingerman is also the director of a three-generational study that focuses on middle-aged children and how they care for the generations above and below them. “The research shows that they have a pretty good idea of what their parents’ needs really are,” she says. “Older parents might do better to try to understand and address the child’s concerns. We found in our research that when the middle-aged adult is worried about the aging parent, the parent is both annoyed by that and feels more loved.”

* * *

At a recent 80th-birthday party for my friend Leah, I found myself seated at a table for eight, all women of a certain age: my very own focus group. At the main table, Leah was surrounded by her family: two sons, their wives, seven grandchildren. A photographer was taking pictures. A beautiful family, all my tablemates agreed.

“While we’re on the subject of families …” I began. I asked the women about their own families, specifically about anything they might want to say to their own adult children. “I’d just want to say thank you,” said one, “and I do say it all the time.” She explained that she was sidelined by a back ailment this past year, and “my daughters, despite their busy social and professional lives, bent over backwards to do everything for their father and me.”

“What I’d want to say to my daughters?” asked another woman, seated to my right. “I’d want to tell them, ‘Buzz off.’” The daughters are both in their early fifties; their mother, widowed early in her marriage, is fiercely proud of her success as a single mother. “They’re always offering to do this, do that, and do the other thing, and it just drives me crazy,” she said. “It tells me that they think I’m not competent.” As a result, she’s stopped telling them when she really does have a problem.

Our conversation was brought to a close by the sound of a spoon clicking against glass. Leah’s older son rose to offer a toast. “To the birthday girl,” he began, going on to extol his mother’s virtues … Other toasts followed. Finally, Leah took the floor. “To my wonderful family …” she began. In her case, I guess that said it all.

A previous version of this article appeared on NYCityWoman.