Relationships with Aging Parents are Important, Complicated


Relationships between children and parents are both important and complicated.  Janet Smith, families program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, says this relationship dynamic changes throughout the lifespan. It is not unusual for difficulties to arise as parents age.

“Adjusting to the changes we see in our parents is not easy,” Smith said. “We watch our parents decline physically and perhaps mentally too. They retire and their world gets smaller. Sometimes our parents move, leaving the family home for a smaller one. One parent may pass away, changing the family situation even more.”

Adult children’s reactions to the various aspects of their aging parents can be varied, from denial to acceptance and everything in between. “Depending upon what’s going on in our own lives, we can be positive one time and negative the next. Feelings are a big part of the changing relationships. These will affect your reactions,” Smith said.

“There are many strong feelings that adult children may have,” Smith said. These include love, respect, sadness, fear, anger and guilt.

In a relationship based on love, children want to do whatever they can to help. Sometimes in a troubled relationship love may not be a factor, but there may be respect for the parents. It is natural to feel sadness about the realities of the situation.

“Fear is a powerful feeling,” Smith said. “We are fearful of what will happen next with our parents. We worry about their deaths. At the same time we can see ourselves aging, and we think about how this will be ‘us’ someday.”

Anger and guilt are two feelings that are difficult to acknowledge and express. The anger may stem from many reasons: what is happening to aging parents, the disruption to the adult children’s lives, parents who are hard to handle and dissatisfaction with siblings or medical professionals.

“And then we feel guilty,” Smith said. “We feel guilty about what we did, what we should have done, what we’re wishing and what we’re thinking.”

As aging parents become less independent and more dependent on their adult children, stress increases for all involved. “It is important to talk with your parents and siblings. Build a support network to help navigate the times ahead. The network could include neighbors, friends, family, volunteers, paid help and professionals. Each has a unique role to play. As your parents’ needs increase, so will the stress and the importance of what the network provides.”

As parents age,  changes will continue to occur.  Adult children will notice that their own feelings and reactions also will continue to change. Honest communication and a respectful relationship can help all parties cope and make necessary decisions.

Caregiving Relationships: Conversations on Aging is a program to help adult children learn to recognize how caregiving affects relationships. It helps them discover their role in making decisions about their parents’ as they age. This program also helps adult children build communication and listening skills and gain ideas on how to start difficult conversations. Smith said, “Contact your county ISU Extension and Outreach office at 319-835-5116 if you want to see this program offered in your community.”

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