I met him at a social gathering. Hunched upon his walking stick, his eyes followed nothing but his son’s footsteps. An aging parent he was, and at the age of eighty, all that he cared about was having his son around him.
I have often found myself in conversations with people, where the discussion reels around, what exactly children need from their parents. As a young parent, my answer always boils down to the most critical thing – every good parent must build on a framework of providing, nurturing and guiding their young children. But here is something else I have noticed. Very rarely, have I been drawn into a discussion on what exactly my parents need from me. Apart from being a parent to young children, I also happen to be an “adult child” of aging parents. As much as I love having them around me, there have been moments when their antics drive me up the wall. I have never really given this much thought, until recently.
At a social gathering, I met the octogenarian. A retired Botany professor he was, and lived with his son and grandchildren. I, in fact, consider him lucky to have them all around him, unlike many other elderly people who live on their own. Yet, I noticed that tinge of loneliness in his eyes. As I walked up to him that evening, he held my hand. The grip was tight, yet warm. He spoke. And when he did, it was like as though the floodgates had been opened. His reminiscence, of his good old days- the life he led, the work he did and the love in his heart for his children. I realized, all that this man wanted was to be heard, to be held and to feel a warm touch. He probably did get them all from his family. But, his age demanded them more frequently.
So, what exactly do aging parents want from their children?
As parents get older, there is a certain element of assurance that they seek very frequently from their children. It is often demanded, and I would blame it on a degree of insecurity, that seeps through most people due to the natural process of growing old. The problem lies in the fact that, though they want to be cared about, there is a fear of being cared for.
Where on one hand they enjoy the company of their children, they also find themselves looking for excuses to see them less often. They may be annoyed by their children’s over-protectiveness, but at the same time do appreciate the concern expressed. It’s a confusing stage for them too.
So if you tell your dad not to dig up the garden, you assume that he’ll listen. It’s the sensible thing to do. But his response would be to go out and shovel away. It’s a way of holding on to a life that seems to be slipping back. It’s a complex situation where there is a strong desire for both autonomy and connection in relations with their adult children, leading to ambivalence about receiving assistance from them.
It is this parental stubbornness that acts as a complicating factor in inter-generational relationships. As adult children, we are more likely to say parents were acting stubborn. But the fact is, it is the scariest thing of old age, where the elderly, don’t feel in control anymore. And that’s when the conflict arises. We, as the middle-aged adult, are worried about the aging parent. However, the parent is both annoyed by that and feels more loved too.
The issue may be complex, however, the solution is fairly simple. By understanding why parents may be insisting, resisting, or persisting in their ways or opinions, could lead to better communication. As I live my life, with a myriad of complexities of growing old, I realize, it’s better to not pick arguments. I prefer to not make a parent feel defensive. It is best to plant an idea, step back, and bring it up later. The key is to be patient.