Is Helping Aging Parents Always Helpful?

Are We Controlling? Do We Have a Hidden Agenda?


Our wig-shopping spree over, my husband’s mother, R, said she could use a little “rest.” I’
ve never researched aging parents’ idea of a “rest.” Her idea at 96: sitting and talking with her son, my husband, for almost two hours. (I took a nap.) Then we all went to R’s best friend N’s home for a Swedish dinner.

If we needed proof that aging parents can organize and cook to perfection for company, we had it! N, at 86, is an awesome (and I don’t use that word lightly) cook. Even more awesome when you consider her age and the food she prepared. Our meal—green salad with just-picked grape tomatoes, fresh salmon with dill, the best small potatoes imaginable, creamy spinach, home-baked limpa bread and a Tosca cake for dessert—was equal to that of the finest New York restaurant.

The fifth guest was N’s child, a daughter in her fifties, who runs a demanding, time-consuming business, yet brought the tomatoes and dill from her garden. The relationship between N and her daughter is respectful, mutually supportive and obviously loving. Many daughters’ instinct would be to come in and take over when an 86-year-old mother undertakes a “company dinner.” We can only imagine how much energy goes into preparing such a dinner—at any age…but at 86?! This very able daughter did it right. She quietly helped as needed; but it was clearly her mother’s dinner party.

I began to think about adult children who insist on taking over major responsibility for holiday family dinners once older mothers reach a certain age. Reason: They’ve decided (rightly or wrongly) it’s too much work for an aging parent. Some older parents give in. Others question the motive, especially that of far-away-living daughters. These mothers are skeptical. “They say it makes it easier for us, but I think it makes it easier for them. It saves them the trouble of bringing the kids (our grandchildren) to us,” says one grandmother, who’s not yet ready to give up the tradition.

Think back to raising children. Remember how often the experts say that it’s important to let a child perhaps struggle a bit but do for him or herself, as opposed to jumping in to help because we can do it better or easier. This reinforces confidence and self- esteem. The same reasoning holds true for aging parents, doesn’t it? Don’t we want our aging parents to continue to feel competent and proud of the fact that we think they are, when indeed that is true?

This brings us to one of our key thoughts: Assuming there’s no threat to life and limb, should we intervene and/or offer suggestions to make it better or easier for ourselves or focus on what makes it better for our parents?

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