4/19/2023 | By Terri L. Jones

The struggle of watching your parents age can touch the depths of your emotions and shared history. In the second of her series, “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging,” Seniors Guide writer Terri L. Jones examines the challenges that aging adults and their children face.

I remember the first time it dawned on me that my father was getting older. He was in his early 70s at the time and had fallen while climbing a tree stand. He broke his pelvis in several places, an extremely painful injury that the doctors at the hospital could do little about. They put him on a variety of new drugs that wreaked havoc on his brain, turning the nurses’ station into a McDonald’s counter and making him believe that the hospital staff was abusing him.

This accident happened before my father was diagnosed with white matter disease, before his stroke, and before we knew he had vascular dementia; however, in my memory, it marked a critical juncture. It was the point when my father transformed from a strong, capable, and reserved man into someone who walked more slowly, who began repeating things, and who expressed himself with shocking vulnerability. It was difficult for me to reconcile these two very different people.

Retired superheroes

“I think most kids in my generation looked at their parents as strong, invincible beings,” explains Patti, who is in her late 50s. “When I was a kid, I loved all the veins in my mother’s hands because I viewed it as a visible sign of her strength.” For years, Patti watched COPD rob her mother of that strength, recently losing her after a long struggle.

If you’re like most baby boomers, your parents were omnipotent authority figures, almost like superheroes (with domain over your everything). There was no hurt they couldn’t heal, problem they couldn’t solve, or privilege they couldn’t take away from you! So, when your parents begin to slip from that lofty position, it’s a very long, difficult fall.

“It’s been tough to see them [my parents] get less physically capable, to be less socially connected to the outside world, and to lose small memories,” notes Jane, whose parents are in their early 80s and still in relatively good health. “I miss the way it used to be – with my strong, capable, amazing parents looking out for me, especially because they were so good at it!”

Roles reverse

When you become the one looking out for your parents, that role reversal can be challenging for everyone concerned. It may result in a power struggle.

Tracie, for example, has been recommending for years that her fiercely independent, 87-year-old mother, who has difficulty walking because of a bad back and knees, move from her two-level townhouse to a one-level apartment. At first, her mother flat-out refused (“I’m still the mother!”) but is now considering it … but in her own good time! However, on other occasions, her mom gladly relinquishes control to her daughter, like the time she forgot to pay her cable bill and left it to Tracie to have her cable reinstated. “I have to act like her mother so much that she’s even inadvertently called me ‘Mom,’” says Tracie, a gaffe that alarmed them both.

While you might find yourself slipping into an authoritative role with your parents, experts advise that you don’t treat them like children. Take the time to listen to their needs and ask them to make changes rather than dictating to them. It’s also critical to involve your parents in the decision-making process – in other words, give them a little control back – which will typically result in a better outcome.

Although I now help my dad buckle his seatbelt, pick up the food he drops under his chair, and repeatedly find his cane for him, he still admonishes me to keep my speed down every time I visit (wagging his finger at me like I was 16 again!). I promise him that I will. Familiar interactions like this keep the relationship in balance for both of us.

Nagging concerns

Adult Asian children with their aging father, for article on watching your parents age.

As you watch your parents age, you worry about their safety and well-being, just like they worried about you.

“My parents are divorced, and they both live alone,” says Jane, “so I worry about them more than I ever have, check in on them more than ever, etc.”

For Tracie, there’s the concern that her mother will be unable to care for herself down the road. “Neither she nor I like to even think about it,” Tracie admits, “much less talk about it.”

But with aging also comes the fear of losing your parents. While this anxiety is common, clinical psychologist Dr. Bhavna Barmi recommends trying to push it to the back of your mind and focusing on the here and now. Spend quality time together and have long conversations. Now’s the time to really get to know your parents as people.

For Jane, who is a writer, getting to know her mom and dad includes informal interviews with them to learn about their lives and who they are – and were – beyond their role as parents. Tracie calls her mom every night and regularly takes her to bingo games, where her outgoing mother is in her element. Because she doesn’t live in the same city as her dad and stepmom, Patti calls and visits as often as she can, also booking an Airbnb every year where the whole family can gather, and her young grandchild can get to know his great-grandparents and vice versa.

Seeing into the future

It’s troubling to watch your parents decline, but your struggle more than likely isn’t just about them. According to an article in Psychology Today, watching your parents get older can also force you to confront your own impending old age.

Recently it occurred to me that when my dad and stepmom are gone, I will become the senior member of our immediate family. But I refuse to let the prospect of tomorrow ruin today. Until then, I’m spending quality time with my dad, dipping my toes in the ocean as often as possible, and eating dessert first!

More in the series, “What to Expect When Your Parents Are Aging”

Writer Terri L. Jones shares more information on what to expect during the stages of aging and how to navigate this potentially challenging time.

Terri L. Jones

Terri L. Jones has been writing educational and informative topics for the senior industry for over ten years, and is a frequent and longtime contributor to Seniors Guide.

Terri Jones