Aging Parents: Father Knows Best

In honor of Father’s Day and fathers everywhere, of every age, living or not, I share these thoughts.

Robert Young and Jane Wyatt, Father Knows Best courtesy Wikipedia

One of America’s popular radio programs, Father Knows Best,  (first aired in 1949) became a favorite TV program in the 50’s and 60’s. The TV version has been called “a classic  of American Pop Culture at its best.”

In those days I definitely thought my father knew best. And today when I called a colleague who taught in my school district (both of our fathers are now gone) and said “Happy Father’s Day, I bet you’re thinking about your father like I am about mine,” she responded “Yes, he was a wonderful father. He was a very practical man, and he was always right.” The last part of that sentence came as a surprise.

Pursuing the subject I asked if she could think of an example. Without hesitating she responded: “I wanted to teach in an Army school in Europe. It was before Viet Nam and I had already been accepted for a position teaching music at a school on an army base. I imagined myself in one of the larger cities. My father said “I don’t know why you’d want to go–you’ll be in some little town out in the middle of nowhere, not the big city you’re imagining.” That didn’t stop me. But he was right. I taught at an army base out in the middle of nowhere, but I don’t regret it.”

I, too, thought my father was always right. He was the smartest man I knew–even after meeting so many brilliant professors in college. In fact it wasn’t until I was 23 and unmarried, that my dad gave me some piece of advice about the men in my life, and I realized he was mistaken–wrong. It took me aback. Looking back it was no big deal. But I’ve obviously never forgotten it.

In those days, before Women’s Lib (later 60’s) and divorce reached the million mark (mid-197o’s), men were assumed to be “head of the family.” Early on in our marriage my husband recounted a story about his parents having a conversation in front of him. His father looked at him and asked  “Who’s the boss, son?”  My husband, who was 5 at the time answered: “You are–aren’t you, Dad?” That was then. He remembers his parents laughing.

Today, as we know, so much has changed. “Father Knows Best” wouldn’t be taken as gospel. Women head many families. (In 2011 about 13 percent of women over age 18 were the heads of their households, according to Women’s Health USA 2012.)

While husbands and wives today often share child rearing and other household responsibilities, there remain older men (plus younger men and men from other cultures) for whom “Father Knows Best” is of utmost importance to the way they see themselves–their self-image. Yet there comes a time for everyone–sooner or later–when father doesn’t know best about everything any more. Indeed adult children begin to know best in some (or most) instances.

So what do we learn and how does this impact our helping fathers and grandfathers age well? When “the time comes” we no doubt recognize it–or have recognized it, right? It’s such a delicate balance: preserving an aging parent’s dignity and self-respect while knowing we have the answer. How can we do/say things in such a way that an older person thinks it’s his idea; or he likes the way we’re presenting something and “buys into the idea,” keeping his self-worth and pride in tact? Since feeling pride and self-worth are major factors in healthy, happy aging, doesn’t it makes sense to keep this this in mind as we (or at least some of us) morph into “know-it-alls?”

We just need to know when–and how.


Walking With An Aging Parent: Do We Do It Right?

Do We Inadvertently Pull? Do We Make It Look Graceful?

Walking With The Elderly

When Mother was alive–after her stroke which did not affect mobility per se but did affect balance and confidence–it was important to me that she maintain her dignity when she depended on me for confidence to walk in public. Her fragile, osteoporosis-ridden bones added to the problem. I’ve seen so many older people whose children were strong and well-meaning; yet the elders looked awkward–often off-balance when they walked together (Who knows how they felt.)

I knew Mother cared about her appearance. I can still hear Dad calling “Come on, we’re going to be late,” as she was applying that finishing touch of make-up or adding that last puff of hair spray. And I remember her telling me about walking with her friend, Marie–a much sturdier-on-her-feet octogenarian. Marie would say “Do you like chicken, grab a wing” and they would walk arm in arm, “normally like two friends do,” Mother said.

Below is a way of walking with older people that instills confidence, while giving them the opportunity to walk further and feel (and look) normal.

  • Walk arm-in-arm like Marie offered Mother. It happens naturally with men and women all the time.
  • For extra support: taking the arm-in-arm position, move your elbow in towards your hipbone so your arm hugs your parent’s arm against your body and your hipbone provides additional support. Done correctly the extra bracing adds to your strength should your parent begin to lose balance, and gives your parent an added feeling of stability.

This suggestion has the stamp of approval from a highly respected nurse-author-geriatric care manager to whom I demonstrated this method.  She likes it because she says “you aren’t pulling or leading your parent, which is usually the case.” As we look for ways to help parents age well, try it.  Go for a walk with your parent.

Also check out:

2/20/13 Help! Aging Parents again was 1st runner-up, this time joined by 3 additional  blogs for this honor. Check them and all finalists out on  And many thanks again for your vote.

Aging Parents: Do We Become Parents to Our Parents–Part 2 of 2

When aging parents can no longer do for themselves…

If we agree that we are our parents’ children; if we acknowledge parents’ natural desire to have their children look up to them with respect; how do we reconcile a popular belief (or is it an attitude?) that when parents get to the point where they can no longer do for themselves and we must take over responsibilities similar to those of parents with young children–we become parents to our parents?

Shortly after publication of her book, They’re Your Parents TooFrancine Russo, spoke to a group in NY last year.  I asked her thoughts about being parents to our parents when they become dependent.  Her response was to the effect that feeding a parent isn’t the same as feeding an infant.  The task may be the same; the relationship is entirely different.

Do we see ourselves as parenting our spouse if he or she has disabilities or neurological problems that require us to do the caregiving dependent parents may require?  I think not. With parents, as well with a spouse, isn’t respect and upholding dignity an overarching aspect of the relationship? Regardless of the situation or duties required of us, can that be ignored?

A friend who instinctively does it right took care of her elderly father after surgery that left him temporarily incontinent. Wanting to maintain her father’s dignity and sensing his unease when she had to help with certain things she quipped “Dad, I’ve been married for a long time now–don’t you think I’ve seen it before?”

I haven’t forgotten her sharing this with me some time ago. I remember thinking what an adult, respectful way to handle an awkward situation.

Since we can’t get inside people’s heads to know how much they’re processing (even when we may think “nothing,”) can we take the risk of making a loved one feel like a child? We may be devoting ourselves to help aging parents, we can feel weary, exhausted, and unappreciated. But is it worth undoing it all if–even for a nanosecond–we make our parents feel diminished?

I remember my mother at one point after her stroke saying something like “I took care of you as a child and now you’re taking care of me.”  I also remember my response (which I must admit to this day I’m happy to think I made). It was something like “You’re right,  Mom, and you know what–now it’s payback time so don’t give it a second thought.”

I do think when we help parents age well–or at least as well as possible– and with dignity right up to the end, we have few–if any–regrets. And that’s a gift we not only give our parents–but ourselves as well.

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely information and research from top universities and respected professionals, plus practical information–to help parents age well.