Written by Missy Buchanan
Not long ago I crossed paths with an adult daughter and her aging mother entering the elevator of a large medical complex. The tension between them was palpable. The middle-aged daughter rolled her eyes at her aging mother. In return, the older woman heaved a huff of exasperation and maneuvered her walker to the opposite side of the elevator. Once at ground level, the daughter spoke in a sharp tone. “Mom, hurry up! I’m late. In fact, I’m probably going to get fired!” Though I don’t know the history of this troubled parent-child relationship, I do know that their inability to communicate well was causing unnecessary stress in a season of life that is already emotionally charged.
As a writer-speaker on faithful aging, I have encountered similar scenarios. After speaking at events for older adults, aging parents often linger behind to discuss their frustrations about inattentive or overbearing adult children. Other times, adult children seek my advice on how best to deal with manipulative or ungrateful parents. While each generation speaks freely tome, I wonder if they are talking with each other. Are they making any effort to stand in the shoes of the other?
Even in loving parent-child relationships, the journey through late life is sure to be filled with potholes. Adult children struggle to determine their new roles. They wonder what to do when the time has come for their parent to give up driving yet they stubbornly cling to the keys. What do they do when an aging loved one refuses to downsize? Many adult children say it’s like walking a tightrope between controlling and caring, helping and hurting.
At the same time, aging parents lament the compounded losses of late life. They feel their independence slipping away. There are ongoing health issues. Longtime friends and family members die or move away. They bristle at the suggestion that they need help, even if they know it to be true. Some even feel invaded, and at times wonder if their adult children have come to visit or just to spy on them.
In truth, walking alongside each other on the journey of aging is tricky business. Emotions are high, and life changes come like pounding waves. Without healthy communication and grace, there will be needless resentment and chaos.
The first step towards effective intergenerational communication is to correct a faulty idea that the role of adult children is to parent their aging parent. Regrettably this notion of role reversal is often promoted in catchy headlines. However, phrases like parenting your parent rob aging parents of respect and dignity, two things they desperately need as they age.
In spite of inevitable changes, adult children should refrain from thinking of it as a role reversal. An aging parent is not a child, even if they need help with life’s most basic daily needs. When adult children appoint themselves as solo decision-makers for their aging parents, it’s not surprising when the older adults resist and push back.
Instead, adult children should consider how to work as a team with their aging parent. Certainly, older adults need adult children as advocates, but unless an aging parent is mentally incapable, they should participate indecisions about their own lives. Adult children should not assume that they know what’s best for their aging parent. Instead ask for their input: Dad, what do you think we should do? Mom, what do you think is our best plan of action? Invite their response. Listen, show respect and inclusion.
Adult children should try to imagine what it must feel like to endure loss upon loss. Aging parents should remember what it was like to have the responsibilities of their middle years tugging from every direction. The more each generation stands in the shoes of the other to feel what they are feeling, the more likely that snarkiness will change to compassion and annoyance to patience.
About Missy Buchanan:
An advocate for older adults, Missy Buchanan is an internationally recognized author and speaker on issues of aging faithfully, drawing from her personal experience as a caregiver for her own aging parents.
She has appeared twice on Good Morning America with co-anchor Robin Roberts who describes Missy as “the rare soul that understands, truly understands, older adults: their fears, struggles and hopes.”
With thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, Missy provides daily insight and encouragement for the journey of aging. Her first book, Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body, remains a top seller in addition to nine other titles which are often found on bedside tables in senior living communities and in church libraries. Her book Beach Calling: A Devotional Journal for the Middle Years and Beyond was launched in June 2019 and achieved #1 New Release Christian Devotional on Amazon. Missy’s newest book, Dry Bones to Living Hope released in the fall of 2021 was endorsed by Rev. Adam Hamilton of UM Church of the Resurrection.
Missy has been a speaker at hundreds of churches, senior living communities and aging conferences including the National Boomer Ministry Conference, the Festival of Wisdom and Grace, and the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network National Conference. She has delivered messages about caregiving and faithful aging to churches of many denominations, including the largest United Methodist Church in the United States-- UM Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS. She has also been a featured speaker aboard cruises for Educational Opportunities Tours.
A resident of Rockwall TX, Missy enjoys regular visits to senior living communities in her area to see her older adult friends, being a greeter at her local church and basking in her favorite role of all: grandmother.