How old do I have to be for someone to tell me what to do?

By From page A5 | December 18, 2013

Why is it that adult children feel the need to “boss around” their older parents? What is going on that gives them the right and privilege to “take over?” At what point does an older adult give up the rights of self-determination and roll over to the requests and demands of their adult children?

These questions continue to roll around in my head as I work with adult children and their older parents but also present themselves personally as I, as an older individual, have conversations with my own grown children and their spouses about important details of my own life. Who gets to take charge when?

Spending a week with eight other women “of an age” this last summer, as we’ve done for the last 10 years, we spent time talking about this piece of aging. Of course, aches and pains and medications were part of the conversation with the recognition that physically, at least, we weren’t able to be as active anymore. With a fairly wide diversity of lifestyles among us, we talked a lot about where we would live, with whom and for how long. We talked about who we wanted to help us make decisions about our welfare if/when we were unable and if that person or persons would act in our best interests and wishes. Although the conversation was spirited to say the least, the only consensus was that we would strive to be the deliverers of our own fate as we moved further forward into older age. Since we only get together as a group once a year, we’re celebrating birthdays each year and note the advancing years.

It seems that at a certain point in an older person’s life, other younger adults around them think that along with the physical decline, the ability to make an informed decision is handicapped by age and infirmity. Now, to be fair, there certainly are situations when older adults disabled by acute illness or a significant memory impairment, such as stroke or dementia, cannot and should not make life-altering decisions by themselves. However, having said that, I think sometimes that expediency gets in the way when discussing and deciding what’s best for Mom or Dad without asking, listening and discussing what Mom or Dad would like to do first.

It’s unfair to place all the blame for this behavior on the adult children. They are trying to act in the best interests of their parent(s) by “rushing in to save the day” when “rushing” may be the worse thing to do. This can happen with a death of a spouse or a serious medical health event whereby the older adult is more vulnerable emotionally, physically or both. Just have what is described as a minor outpatient surgical procedure that goes on for three days with “pre,” procedure and then “post” and all it’s implications and you’ll feel particularly vulnerable and less than your independent self. In that space it would not be a good couple of days to decide to sell the house and move closer to the kids. Experts recommend that big decisions should be made only after considerable thought, discussion and time (one year recommended).

What’s the big rush? Big decisions deserve to be thought about in a thoughtful manner until the right decision presents itself. If you ask me, there are no perfect decisions. There are pros and cons to everything and the tradeoffs can be particularly painful if they have to be made under pressure and the expectations of someone else.

I think it comes as a surprise to all of us gradually that we can no longer be completely self-sufficient. Crawling under a car to look for the oil leak, cleaning out gutters on the roof or working in the yard for hours on end are gone for most of us. It takes a lot of self-talk to just admit the inabilities and look for help with those things that need doing but that cannot be done. Once you get past the admission, it is easier to look for help either within your informal (family/friends) support system or to hire someone who makes it all look so easy. Admitting you can’t do it all doesn’t mean you as the older adult have to give up all of your opinions and feelings about what’s important.

Expertise is needed in areas out of the older person’s realm. Age doesn’t necessarily mean expertise in everything. It is a wise person who looks for and takes the counsel of someone who knows more. A good example is searching out a good financial advisor to help understand and stretch those financial resources. Another may be an attorney to help everyone understand the family trust or to draw up a will that will benefit heirs. Good advice should be taken as such — “advice,” considering the sources, the experiences and the reputations of the individuals giving counsel. Again, some time to review the alternatives is good and ask any/all questions that are on your mind.

Families members have varying relationships with one another, some of which have changed over the years while others have specific attributes that have been present since childhood. The difference is that now the parent(s) are in their 80s or older and the adult children sometimes assume the same familial roles they assumed at 16 but are now almost 60.

It is common I think to watch your grown children from a distance as their work, their children and busy lives lead them in sometimes dizzying circles. Perhaps that’s the reason that you as the older adult hesitate to call and ask a favor. You just know how busy they are as they text from softball games, call while in the car or at the grocery store with kids in tow. You hate to bother and, besides, shouldn’t you be able to do this yourself?

The trouble is when a crisis happens — a death, accident or a serious health incident — they come running and are anxious to help. They love you and you know it. You’re feeling awful and they’re here to give you the support they think you need. They aren’t used to you needing anything (after all you multi-tasked with supper, laundry and homework for years) that they want to fix whatever the problem is.

“Move closer to us,” they urge. “Sell your house. It’s too big. How can you keep it up?” “Why are you still working? Why don’t you retire?” At the time it makes sense. It’s a lot of work and you’re feeling vulnerable and alone. They may say, “It’s too cold at home in the winter. It would be better if you were where you didn’t have to have a wood stove or shovel snow.” You think that sounds good to you as your arthritis is already badly affecting your ability to use your hands. These conversations are spoken with love by people who love you and who you love back. Your vulnerability and fear of what’s ahead can push you into a decision that may not be thought through or the best one.

Take your time when decisions are being considered. Use your support system outside of the family to give you feedback. Listen to what others tell you. Think about what’s most important to you and the life you have in front of you. Develop a list of questions that need answering before the decisions are made. Don’t be rushed into moving, changing your lifestyle, giving up your individual outside support system. Remember the adult children presenting their proposals are trying to help but may not understand your fears and concerns about the changes presented. Opportunities regularly present themselves in one manner or another. It’s only in the careful presentation by the adult children, soliciting the critical input from the parent and the discussion of the options, that ultimate good decisions can move forward and be made.

Carol S. Heape, MSW, CMC is CEO of Elder Options Inc., a proven resource with Care Managed Home Care by Certified Professional Geriatric Care Managers to help families understand, negotiate and afford the issues of elder care. E mail:

Carol Heape


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