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Aging Well: Parenting evolves as we age

By Katharine Esty — Columnist

Recently, a heartwarming event took place in my retirement community. A group of residents, mostly in their eighties, gathered to meet the ten-week-old twin sons of our chaplain.

A hush fell over the room as the babies were passed carefully into the eagerly awaiting arms of two of the women. 

When it was my turn, I hesitated, feeling a mix of excitement and uncertainty because I hadn’t held a baby in years.

As I cradled the warm little body, I unexpectedly found myself weeping. These were tears of wonder at this new life, with all its promise and possibilities. At the same time, I became acutely aware of the long and winding road that has been my life  —  my four grown sons, my daughters-in-law, and my grandchildren  —  and all the joys and sorrows I have experienced over the years. I felt awe at the renewal of life and hope for the world.

This experience brought home to me my need to stay connected to people of all ages. 

Parents, Children, and Caregiving Bonds

The bonds between parents and children are some of the strongest and most enduring connections in our lives. When a baby is born, we are entirely dependent on our parents for survival. Parents or other caregivers provide food, shelter, safety, love, and companionship, as well as guidance and structure. In the past, it was assumed that by the time children reached 18 or 21, they would be independent adults, and the work of parenting would be complete.  

Today, our parenting years last longer. Parents continue to support their children, providing counsel, resources, and even financial assistance. We help with some of the mortgages, car payments, and provide care for the grandchildren. In some cases, adult children return to live with their parents, often for several years. Adult children may help with chores or contribute to the household income and also provide love, company, and purpose to their parents.

Even though multi-generational living in the U.S. has more than doubled since the 1970s, up to 18 percent in 2021, today, age-segregated lifestyles are common and most parents in their 50s are living separately from their adult children. Parents require little assistance from their kids, though they might need help when it comes to computers and technology. As they age into their 60s and 70s, parents may begin to need more help with finances, house repairs, and shopping.

As we grow even older, our adult children take on more responsibility for our overall well-being. In fact, they often start to act more like parents than children. I call this phenomenon “upside-down parenting” to highlight the reversal of roles. It is now the adult children who host holiday meals, plan family vacations, and accompany their parents to medical appointments. Those without children often get some help from their nieces, nephews, and godchildren.

The Bumpy Road of Dependency and Care

As parents age, more issues arise creating a bumpy road that many families find difficult to navigate. Adult children are often concerned that a parent is not getting the medical care they need. And some of us elders do try to hide our pain or symptoms from our children. We may insist on driving even after several accidents. Our children may only gradually come to understand when we are struggling, for example, when we have trouble dressing or getting lost when we take a walk.

It is hard for adult children to know how to handle these situations. Some adult children become a bit bossy, announcing to their parents what they should and should not do. Alternatively, there are adult children who are oblivious to a parent’s growing needs and their increasing dependency. 

Research has shown the importance of improving generational intelligence, which is our “ability to appreciate how people from other generations experience the world, and incorporate this understanding into behavior and decision-making,” according to the journal Nature Aging. 

Questions to Consider

Here are some questions for those of you with an aging parent. What is the best way to bring up  these kinds of difficult subjects? When is it the right time to intervene? Do parents have the right to make decisions that their children feel are unwise? When does this right cease?

As an aging parent, here are some questions to ask yourself. What is so wrong about being more dependent on your family at this stage of life? What are the signs that it’s time to ask for help?

The most important thing for both aging parents and their children is to take the time to listen to each other. It is always wise to talk less and listen more. 

Open Connections, Strengthening Bonds

As the roles of parents and children evolve, we often lose sight of the importance of maintaining connections across generations over time for “mutual emotional support and skill sharing,” according to Nature Aging.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were differing opinions between the generations about connecting. Some people felt it was safer to isolate, while others thought visits outside were worth the risks entailed. The long separations were difficult, especially for those in hospitals and at the end of life.

As people started seeing their families again in person, many friends and clients expressed surprise by the euphoria they felt. Collectively, we learned as a society that contact with family is essential for our well-being. The separation from our loved ones and the resulting loneliness led to a newfound understanding of the impact and effects of intergenerational relationships on our health and happiness. We realized how much we need and rely on each other.

It is important to recognize that what aging parents want most is to spend more time with their families and strengthen their relationships with younger generations. A visit from one of my sons or a grandchild is always special.

The highlight of this last winter for me was a weekend in New York with my 28 year-old grandson Jonathan. Of course, time together doesn’t have to be a trip or celebration. What matters is taking the time to talk and learn about each other and having the time to look at pictures and tell stories. This is the gold.

On May 7, I got the news that Reece Camryn Esty had arrived. I am now a great-grandmother and will meet her at my 90th birthday party in July. 

Concord resident Katharine Esty, PhD, is a social psychologist, retired psychotherapist, and organizational consultant. She is the award-winning author of “Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness.” At 89, her writing is focused on creating a new understanding of possibilities for living into old age.