Joshua Coleman remembers watering down a glass of wine before giving it to his father, then in his 90s.
“What the hell is this?” he recalls his father asking.
“I feel a little guilty about that now,” says Dr. Coleman, whose father died in 2001. “The poor old guy had few remaining pleasures left. But I would have felt bad had he gone back to assisted living and slipped.”
There’s a fine line between being an appropriately concerned adult child and an overly worried, helicopter one, says Dr. Coleman, a psychologist who specializes in family dynamics. If a parent is in an accident, it might be time to talk about driving, as he did after his father sideswiped three cars. But if Mom doesn’t want to wear a hearing aid, it might be wise not to nag. Maybe she doesn’t want to listen to anyone at the moment.
When Cathy Walbert, a mother of five, picked up a baby at a family gathering last year, her daughter rushed to her side, worried she might drop her. Another daughter hovers when Mrs. Walbert—who says she probably is more candid than she was years ago—starts talking to someone. Her son tells her to be careful on the steps.
“I think, ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ I’m an adult,” says Mrs. Walbert, of Pittsburgh who says she is older than 75.
“You start treating them like a child, saying ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that,’ ” says her daughter, Lisa Spor. Her mother, she says, usually responds “What do you mean, ‘Don’t do that?’ ”
A big question adult children need to ask is whether they are intervening for their parents’ well-being or to alleviate their own worries, says William Doherty, a family therapist and professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. “If your 80-year-father is still driving, you worry,” even if he is capable of driving, he says. “If he’s not driving, you don’t worry, but your father has had a big loss.”
During her career as a clinical psychologist, Laura Carstensen, who is also founding director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, heard from both sides. Parents wanted advice on how to get their kids off their back. Adult children wanted advice on how to persuade their parents to give up their family home.
In general, her advice is that unless a parent is cognitively impaired and not aware of the level of his or her impairment, children need to respect the parent’s decision.
“These are difficult situations,” she says. “I know that first-hand.”
In 2015, Dr. Carstensen tried to talk her father, then 95, into leaving New York and moving to the California home she shares with her husband. Her father, a scientist, was still writing and publishing papers. But he was having trouble with balance and lived in a two-story house where he had to go down to the basement to do his laundry.
“Was I worried? Yes, I was worried,” she says. He was hard of hearing, so phone calls were difficult. A few times when she couldn’t reach him, she worried that something had happened, only to learn he had simply gone to the drugstore.
Her father did agree to have activity sensors installed in certain places in the house—his chair by the computer, the refrigerator, the cutlery drawer. Every morning, Dr. Carstensen would check the sensors and if they indicated activity, she knew not to worry.
“He really wanted to live in his own home,” she says. She talked to him about her concerns that he would fall. He told her that falling down in his own home was as “good a way to go as he could imagine.” Her father did eventually die, at 96, after a fall at home.
‘Do kids need to monitor every time a parent crosses the room or goes to the bathroom? You have to give them space to live their own life.’
—Grace Whiting, chief executive of the National Alliance for Caregiving
Grace Whiting, chief executive of the National Alliance for Caregiving, says monitoring devices can turn into a proxy helicopter. They can be extremely useful, especially in the case of an emergency, she says, as long as they don’t compromise the dignity of an older adult. “Do kids need to monitor every time a parent crosses the room or goes to the bathroom?” she asks. “You have to give them space to live their own life.”
Even small, well-intentioned acts can send the wrong message to parents, says Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and author. If a parent fumbles with the key when trying to unlock a door, kids should be patient and wait, rather than grabbing the key and taking over. While you may be trying to be helpful, the message, deliberate or not, is that you are competent, and the parent isn’t, she says.
When Rip Kempthorne’s parents were having trouble covering the mortgage on their farm in Kansas, he suggested they relocate to Olympia, Wash., and move in with his young family. They did. Charley, 80, and June, 71, have a basement apartment to themselves. Their 5-year-old granddaughter runs in and out.
“There was no pressure,” says Charley Kempthorne. He and his wife expect the time will come when they can’t make decisions on their own and are grateful to be with family before that time comes. For the moment, the younger Kempthornes don’t have to hover over Charley and June because they watch out for each other.
June tells Charley to put in his hearing aid. He tells her not to leap out of the car. After several falls, she has given up sandals for sturdier shoes. “They won’t let me carry groceries,” says June, but that is probably a good thing. “I tend to carry too much and fall over.”
David Solie, an expert in geriatric psychology, says he was overly anxious when caring for his mother, Carol. As her health deteriorated, he was urged by a cousin, who lived closer to her, to move her into assisted living, which she strongly opposed. At one point, he went to the family attorney asking what he could do. The attorney told him his mother moved slowly and couldn’t open a jar of food, but was coherent and articulate. He advised Mr. Solie to wait, which he ultimately did. His mother remained at home until she had a massive stroke.
In retrospect, Mr. Solie says he wishes he had relaxed more and not been so consumed by getting her to give up her home.
Mr. Solie cautions other adult children against trying to make sure everything is perfect, with every pill taken and every appointment kept. “Don’t point out everything that they forgot or that they aren’t as clean as they should be,” he says. “Cut them some slack.” And if they want to date—something that many adult children oppose for fear of their parents being hurt or losing part of their inheritance—don’t stand in the way. “Allow them to be happy.”
How to avoid becoming a helicopter child:
- Unless your father or mother has dementia, don’t make decisions for him or her. Discuss matters and remember he or she has a right to take informed risks.
- If you and your parents don’t agree on their level of competence, consult a professional together.
- Don’t go through your parents’ mail or screen their calls unless asked.
- Pick your battles. If a parent is getting lost or has stopped bathing, talk about what help he or she might need to remain independent. If his or her clothes don’t match, get over it.
- If a parent has cataracts in both eyes and continues to drive at night, ask the primary-care physician to intervene.
- If your parents forget to turn off the stove, don’t jump to the conclusion they can’t stay in their home. Look into devices that turn stoves off automatically.
- Use classic ‘I’ language, such as: ‘I am concerned about you living in a two-story house after your heart attack.’ Avoid: ‘You can’t live here anymore.’
Write to Clare Ansberry at email@example.com. Appeared in the April 24, 2018, print edition as ‘Aging Parents Resist ‘Helicopter’ Children The Right Approach.’
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