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 …”