Human beings today are living longer than ever before. Some experts say that people will soon be living healthily well into their hundreds. But the needs of aging parents can be a source of stress, guilt and resentment for adult children in our hurried modern society. Counseling can be a space to help clients find the best path forward for their parents and their own families.
The Perils of Parenting Our Parents
Generations ago, multiple generations of family lived together, relying on each other to accomplish the daily tasks needed to keep the household running, and to increase the survival rates of all family members. Cultural norms dictated that adult children care for their elder members, and almost all families followed that same expectation. In the past, however, growing old and infirm was unlikely, due to rampant disease and poor health care. Now, most of us can expect to know our grandparents, even our great-grandparents, as the aging population increases. But unlike periods where communal living was the norm, and all family members were exposed to each other’s bodies and functions on a regular basis, families today have different norms and expectations for boundaries and privacy. Older folks in their 70s and 80s regularly live independent lives, marked by autonomy and control of their decision making. Many adult children would feel awkward or disrespectful tending to their parents’ physical needs, and many elderly would feel minimized or dismissed to have their choices dictated by their offspring. Today’s family hierarchies typically clearly delineate the roles and rules surrounding the domains of parents and of their children, regardless of their age. Counseling can be a space where clients can examine their values, explore the options for their parents’ care, and process the myriad feelings of grief, loss, fear, anger and resentment that often crowd the experience of a family as it ages. The therapy process helps each family come to terms with what works for them, and facilitates open and honest communication of all members’s needs. Working together with a therapist skilled in family development over the lifespan, adult children and their parents can create a path forward that ensures parents age with dignity and respectful care, and adult children can feel confident they are honoring both themselves and the generation that paved their way.