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What Will Our Parents Need Most from Us as They Age?

Helping with daily needs may be easier than providing emotional support.

Key points

  • Shifts in how we perceive our parents' need for assistance with daily living (ADL) change our relationship.
  • Even when parents need help with daily living chores, we don't expect their support of our needs will change.
  • It's easier for us to meet aging parents' tangible and informational needs than their emotional ones.
  • Truly empathizing with fearful, dependent parents is often too difficult for their children.

I remember the first time I realized my mother was old and would die one day. She’d just deplaned from a cross-country trip to visit me, and suddenly I was aware of how frail she was, of the fact that soon she would need me to do the things she could no longer do for herself. I felt an anticipatory grief as well as worry that if she suffered from a long illness and required those services for an extended period of time, I’d have to relocate across the country.

Frankly, I also worried about myself, because she had provided me with both tangible financial and emotional support for many years without asking anything in return.

A new study examined whether changes in middle-aged parents’ perception of their own parents’ activities of daily living needs (ADL) were associated with changes in the mutuality of support in their relationship. Adult children in this family exchange study self-reported providing and receiving tangible emotional and informational support to and from their parents. As parents’ need for help with their ADL needs increased, so did their provision of it, although there were no changes in the amount of support received from aging parents. But as those needs increased, the younger generation felt less able to provide emotional support to their parents.

I hear that from many clients who’ve been helping their elderly parents with many of those needs for years—cooking, cleaning, shopping, and chauffeuring them around. “Some of it is being in that sandwich generation,” reports one. “I’m taking care of my daughter’s baby at the same time I’m doing for my Mom. My daughter’s a single parent, and she needs my empathy and support more than Mom does,” says another client, who’s going through a difficult menopause, “I’m too focused on my own hormones to pay that much attention to my mother’s feelings, harsh as that sounds.”

A close friend says of her widowed father, “I cook a week’s worth of meals at a time for him and try to give him the help he needs, but I can’t answer his emotional needs. I can’t be my mother.“ Another friend reports, “It’s very hard to put myself in my 78 year-old mother’s place and feel what it must be like to be emotionally dependent, as she is, since my father died. I do as much for her as I can; I’m there almost every day and grateful for the money she gives me, but what she needs emotionally is beyond my ability. I mean, I can sympathize with her feelings but it’s too scary to really empathize with her loneliness.”

With the role reversal that inevitably occurs when parents age comes a new and frightening understanding of their emotional needs: We know that what awaits us in the hopefully distant future is not only dying but the need for reassurance that our lives had meaning and that we’ll be missed and remembered by those we love. And even if right now we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to offer more to our parents, reassuring them of those things can be more than enough

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