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Successful Aging: When should adult children intervene for aging parents?

Q. I am having difficulty knowing when to intervene with my father’s good intentions without insulting his dignity. My father is 89 and in relatively good health; my mother is 84, suffers from dementia and lung cancer and lives at home. When we recently went out to dinner, my father had difficulty describing his menu choice. Consequently, the food served to him was not of his liking. When navigating the stairs, he does not hold on to the hand railing. Although I’ve written a schedule, he is not giving my mother her medications on time. Should I have helped my father orders his meal, remind him to hold on to the railing and intervene when not giving my mother her pain medication on time? My father is a proud man. Many thanks. S.L.

Dear S.L. You clearly are a caring daughter and have identified a very sensitive issue with no easy answers. We know that most aging parents want to be cared about rather they cared for. Two characteristics highly valued by older adults are independence and dignity. Consequently, adult children are faced with the dilemma of balancing caring, supporting, managing and intervening, particularly when a solution seems obvious.

Some may argue that it is only natural for adult children to become parents to their aging parents. Wrong approach! Our parents will never become our children. Additionally, part of the parent-child relationship depends on the child’s developmental stage. An adult in diapers is different from an infant; an older adult who can longer feed him or herself is different from an infant who needs to be fed.

Let’s take the position of an aging parent. What are they looking for? Mary Gallant and Glenna Spitze, two professors from the State University of New York at Albany, explored the issue in interviews with focus groups of older adults. They found the participants wanted to be independent from their children. which led them to feel ambivalent about receiving help from them. Yet they hoped their children would be available should they need them. They were annoyed when their children were overprotective yet appreciated their concern. To overcome their ambivalence, older adults minimized the help they received and ignored or resisted their children’s attempts to control.

Losing control is a frightening aspect of aging. That can mean a lack of control of one’s body, daily tasks or cognitive abilities. When an older adult accepts assistance, it can be a reminder about the fragility of feeling independent.

And then there is resistance. Trying to understand parents’ resistance could ideally be addressed through conversation. Steve Zarit, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the Pennsylvania State University reported some useful tips: Avoid arguments that put parents on the defensive, plant an idea and then step back and let things happen. Don’t’ rush.

Let’s move to your concern. The restaurant situation is public. Consider approaching that topic gingerly and don’t push it. Your father may rather have a meal not to his particular liking rather than having someone order for him.

Preventing a fall is important. Consider mentioning that you always have a free hand when navigating the stairs, knowing that falls can be a precursor to a disaster. Using a hand railing is just a habit you can encourage him to consider.

The medication for your mother is another story. When it comes to safety, intervention is appropriate. Have a serious conversation with your father about the importance of your mother’s pain medication. If necessary, have a meeting with her doctor to reinforce the schedule. Also, consider your father’s cognitive abilities and capacities. Assess whether he is able to manage your mother’s medication. If not, you might ask a family member or friend to check in a few times a day or hire an aid who can remind your father to dispense the pain meds.

Older adults generally want to be perceived as competent and will do what is necessary to retain mild that perception. I recently spoke to a 79-year-old man who fell. Although he only suffered a minor bruise, he did not tell his children for fear of a lecture and more. He thought he would be the object of “helicopter” children which would make him feel less competent, independent and very annoyed. In reality, this man just tripped that had little to do with his age.

S.L. Thank you for your important question. Best wishes in having a successful dialogue that is comfortable for you and your father. Hopefully, your chat will lead to some changes.

Note: On Sept. 4 at Palos Verdes Golf Club, I will be interviewing Marc Freedman, award-winning president and CEO of a national change maker. He has sparked a national movement to tap experience and talent of those 50+ as a resource to solve our most vexing social problem. The event is sponsored by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Village. The event is free but seating is limited. For more information, go to or email

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