Back in the mid-1980s when I worked as an admissions counselor in a retirement home, I noticed the differing ways that middle-aged “children” behaved with their elderly parents. While some seemed to have a respectful parent/child relationship, many others (and I do mean MANY) could barely have a civil conversation where they actually listened to each other as they spoke with me about the parent possibly moving into the retirement home. I portrayed some of these relationships in my first novel The Death Called Change.
Now that I, myself am, what some people might call elderly, I’m hearing the woes of my friends here at the retirement home, where I happily live, regarding their middle-aged (roughly 45- to 65-year-old offspring).
More than a few fellow residents have children who don’t speak to them, either from time-to-time, or permanently. When a man and wife recently died here at the home within weeks of one another, no memorial service was held for either one; they hadn’t spoken with their children in years. Another resident told me that her daughter regularly blows up at her for reasons that the mother can’t determine and then doesn’t call or visit her mother. The relationship resumes only when the mother reaches out to the daughter in a way that the daughter finds acceptable.
There comes a time when the parent/child role may reverse, when the child, out of necessity, becomes the dominant player in the relationship. For some, this role reversal is accepted, may come suddenly or may be gradual over time as the parent acknowledges a need for help, and the child is willing to step up to the task even though there might not have been been emotional closeness over the years.
Generally, the elderly parents have done the best they are capable of doing in raising their young children through teens and into adulthood considering the problems in other areas of life that they have faced, but the kids don’t always turn out as the parents hoped. Serious mental illness in a grown child devastates parents, as they try hard to help, spending money needed for their own retirement years, always asking themselves, “What did I do wrong?” Grown children may become substance abusers or inattentive workaholics or too intellectual to relate to their less educated parents. The rift between middle-aged offspring and their elderly parents can take many forms and may happen for a whole variety of reasons.
But let’s not blame the adult children for all of this. I’ve met elderly folks who are perpetually cranky, bossy, and downright mean. I try to avoid those who are cleverly manipulative and passive-aggressive who always strive to get what they want no matter what it costs those around them. If I’d had parents such as this, I would have fled too.
So what is one to think about all of this? I believe, and you the reader may disagree, that grown children will help themselves by coming to terms with a dysfunctional relationship with their parents BEFORE the parent dies, because when the parent is no longer on this earth, forgiveness, understanding, and peace-of-mind is so much harder to achieve. However, if the parent is entrenched in their narrowness, in their selfishness, in their meanness, confrontation won’t help; there is not the likely possibility of insight into themselves with change in behavior. In this case, the children might try to emotionally distance themselves enough to say, “This is how my mother or my father is, but I am not my parent. I am myself, and I am now free to make my own choices and to make my own achievements and mistakes without the judgment of my parents.” Having now found their true independent selves, the children are also free to be loyal to their parents through their old age, doing what is needed to see that the parents are properly cared for without themselves falling back into the emotional traps that had been set for them in the past when they were vulnerable youngsters. They’ll be doing the right thing and can continue into their own old age free of guilt regarding their parents.
For the elderly who are angry or sorrowful regarding the behavior of their middle-aged offspring, it’s very hard to endure the disappointment that they feel. All around them they hear others bragging about the achievements of their children and grandchildren, and it would be easy to sink into a silent morass of personal shame. Here’s a tip: Although we never stop actually BEING parents to the people to whom we gave birth, we CAN let go of feeling responsible for them. If we truly did the best that we knew how to do in raising them, however imperfect, its up to them now to figure out how to live their lives in the world in which they find themselves. We don’t really ‘get’ that world anyway.
Then just relax and watch the soap opera unfold. It might not be one you would have chosen to watch, but it’s better than getting enmeshed in a story over which you no longer have any control. Work at not feeling guilty or even disappointed. Move on, and create a life of your own. You’ll feel better, and be more fun to be around.