As we get older, so do our parents. This process will change our relationship with our parents in numerous, unexpected ways. Suddenly (or perhaps not so suddenly), we are taking care of the people who took care of us as small children, and with that shift in roles comes a shift in the relationship. Sometimes the relationship can become contentious, or fade away as we ignore the new challenges rather than rise to meet them.
Important Elements to a Relationship with our Aging Parents
Many times the rift between parent and child is geographic before anything else. Children move away from their parents when they start families themselves, when they get new jobs, to assert their independence, or simply because they are searching for a change. When their parents get older, however, that distance becomes prohibitive in maintaining a relationship. As parents get older they are less likely to travel, and while many of us rely on technology to stay connected, our parents either don’t have the skills, the resources, or the desire to upgrade to skype or facebook.
If it is an option, moving either yourself or your parent so that you are closer to one another can be a good step. Many times, “children” buy houses with apartments either attached to the house, or built into it so that their parents can live on the same property. With parents close by, this also allows them to maintain a relationship with other family members–their grandchildren and great-grandchildren get to see them on more than just major holidays and family celebrations. Instead, the parents are integrated into more everyday life situations, and the next generation grows up with a connection to their grandparents or even their great-grandparents.
Of course, as we age, there is an inherent role reversal in the parent-child relationship. The child frequently has to step up and take control of their parents’ living arrangements, financial planning, and sometimes must make medical decisions as well. Forbes recommends a preemptive strike on this front; talk to your parent(s) about these upcoming changes before they are unable or unwilling to share important documents and decision making ideas with you (Forbes). Overall, the article recommends patience and diligence in dealing with these matters–the more you have mapped out, the fewer decisions you will have to make for your parents rather than with them.
Why a Strong Parent-Child Relationship Is Healthy
An unintentional side-effect of getting older is social isolation. As we age, our friends and family move on. Once we reach a certain age group, our peers become immobile, lose their memory, or die. As a result, our aging parents will have less social interaction and higher risk for loneliness. According to a study done by Vera Toepoel, (Department of Leisure Studies, University Tilburg) “The consequences of social isolation include bad health, depression, personality disorders, and suicide. Given the association between ageing and loss of social contacts, these negative consequences make the prevention and treatment of social isolation an important priority in ageing populations” (Toepoel).
You can help prevent these symptoms by spending quality time with your parents as they age. Toepeol goes on to explain that isolation and loneliness are combated best with familiar activities: “…middle-aged and older adults attempt to preserve and maintain existing internal and external structures and prefer to accomplish this objective by using strategies tied to their past experiences and their social world (Atchley 1989). Continuity theory assumes that older people who maintain outgoing leisure behavior (e.g. going out and seeing other people as they age) have higher rates of well-being. This is demonstrated in a number of studies (see, a.o. Fernandez-Ballesteros et al. 2001; Longino and Cart 1982; Reitzes et al. 1995).” (Toepoel) Of course, maintaining activities from your past and your parents’ past can help you stave off your own social isolation as well. In a best-case scenario, your own children and/or grandchildren can see you maintaining these activities, and will do the same with you as you age.
Hobbies for You and Your Parents
Maybe now your annual trip to the lake or ice skating on the weekends is off the table for you and your parents. If they live in a home, they may not even be able to get out for dinner at your favorite restaurant or for a family birthday. There are still plenty of ways to stay active with your parents, which will help strengthen your relationship and make those tough talks easier to have.
If your parents are still mobile, volunteering is a great option for togetherness. You can offer up your services doing everything from building houses to stuffing envelopes, serving up meals or reading to others at a local library. Other activities for mobile parents include gardening, going on walks, or visiting a local park or beach to relax outside. Some senior homes even allow family to take residents outside in wheelchairs to enjoy the on-campus grounds. This allows your parents to get some sun and fresh air with someone who is guaranteed to engage with them rather than Senior Home employees who do not know them as personally.
Finally, if it is an option, you can use technology to stay connected with your aging parents. Perhaps you can buy them a smart phone or tablet so that instead of just chatting on the phone, you can video chat. This also makes sharing photos and up-to-date information on your family’s life much faster and easier than mailing photos or letters. You can run a hobby group over the internet, as well–book clubs or knitting circles where you discuss hobbies you used to do in person with your parents as they age.
Rosenblatt, Carolynn. How To Have A More Positive Relationship With Your Aging Parent, Forbes.com. http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolynrosenblatt/2011/07/25/how-to-have-a-more-positive-relationship-with-your-aging-parent/#4366495068d5.
Toepoel, Vera. Ageing, Leisure, and Social Connectedness: How could Leisure Help Reduce Social Isolation of Older People?, Social Indicators Research. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-012-0097-6.