I’ll never forget the time I gently suggested to my mother, then in her late 70s, that she didn’t need a third (or was it a fourth?) glass of wine. If looks could kill, I would have predeceased her by five years.
For my mother, wine was one of life’s simple but essential pleasures — up there with cigarettes, butter and The New Yorker magazine. Every evening, usually between 5 and 6 p.m., she’d fetch a goblet from the cabinet, deposit a couple of ice cubes and fill the glass with pinot grigio. Typically, she was on her third glass by 8 p.m. And if she had company, there might even be a fourth, possibly a fifth.
As a wine lover myself, I never begrudged my mother her nightly tipple — until age started to catch up with her. As she became less steady on her feet and less focused mentally, it dawned on me that even a moderate amount of wine could make her more susceptible to a fall — or worse. What if she forgot to lock her door before bed? What if she forgot to turn the oven off?
Thus it happened one night, with little forethought on my part, that I blurted out something to my mother about having had enough wine. This led to a discussion that quickly escalated into an argument that exploded into a brief shouting match — one of the few times I raised my voice to my mother. By that time, she’d forgotten about pouring herself another glass of wine. I apologized.
As time passed, I found myself challenging my mother on a range of decisions I had never previously questioned. “Did you really mean to give $250 to a local charity?” “Don’t you think it’s time to stop driving?” “What do you mean you want to get a dog?” Such questions irked my mother. Her reactions ranged from hostile stares to exclamations of, “It’s my money!”
In retrospect, one of the most difficult things about helping my mother “age in place” — that is, continue living in her own home — was constantly navigating the boundaries between proper concern for her safety and being a perfect pain in the ass. My efforts to control my mother’s behavior, however well-intentioned, were extremely frustrating for her. And it led to strains in our relationship.
Finding the right balance between what’s responsible and what’s meddlesome is the subject of an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal titled, “Who’s in Charge Here? Aging Parents Resist Interfering ‘Helicopter’ Children.” We’re all familiar with “helicopter parents” — those who try to micromanage every aspect of their kids’ lives. But as our parents grow older and less independent, there’s a tendency among their children to become “helicopter kids.”
Joshua Coleman, a psychologist who specializes in family dynamics, says there’s a fine line between being “an appropriately concerned adult child and an overly worried helicopter" child. “If a parent is in an accident, it might be time to talk about driving,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “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.”
William Doherty, a family therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, believes adult children need to ask themselves whether they’re intervening for their parents’ well-being or to alleviate their own worries.
“If your 80-year-old father is still driving, you worry” — even if he is capable of driving, Doherty said. “If he is not driving, you don’t worry, but your father has had a big loss.”
The Journal article quotes a Harvard University psychologist who observes, wisely, that even small, well-intentioned acts can send the wrong message to parents. “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,” advises Dr. Ellen Langer. “While you may be trying to be helpful, the message, deliberate or not, is that you are competent and the parent isn’t.”
David Solie, an expert in geriatric psychology, cautions adult children against trying to make sure everything is perfect. “Don’t point out everything that they forgot, or that they aren’t as clean as they used to be,” he said. “Cut them some slack. If they want to date, don’t stand in the way. “Allow them to be happy.”
Another expert, Laura Carstensen of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, offers sound advice for striking the right balance with aging parents: “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.”
Of course, gauging whether or not an elderly person is cognitively impaired – and to what extent they’re aware of the impairment – is no simple matter. That will be the subject of a future blog post.
Written by T.J. Foderaro