What exactly do aging parents want from their children?

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.

Confusing indeed!

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.

31 comments

  1. Ramya, take a bow, this is a deeply insightful and thought-provoking post! What you’ve said is precisely what’s been on my mind for awhile now. Quite simply, old parents are as difficult to handle as teen kids. You never know what will hurt or anger either. And like you said the key is to be patient. The need to be heard definitely increases as one ages. Loved this one!

  2. Ramya, this is a topic close to my heart. I am handling two sets of aging parents. My parents and my in-laws. Though I stay a safe distance away from both of them, I do visit them almost every week. Oldage and deteriorating health brings in insecurity in them. Parents need to find creative ways of keeping themselves busy. It is important for all of us. My biggest issue is with my own mother as she doesn’t have any specific interest and thus is almost completely dependent on me. She requires my time which I try to provide. I have to pick up her calls (almost 10-12 calls a day). Yet she complains that I do not have enough time for her. With two school-going children and a rarely available husband, I tend to lose my temper at times. I regret it later. But as you said, parenting aging parents requires lot more patience than handling children.

    1. I exactly have the same issue with my mom. SHe doesnt really have a specific hobby or interest, hence the issues are quite magnanimous. And parenting her then becomes quite a task. Thanks for sharing your experience Rekha.

  3. With 2 sets of aged parents on my and husband’s sides, I can relate to this post. They still want to be the decision makers though their concepts may be old. They want to be involved in every aspects as they fear being made irrelevant. Maybe the fear is in their subconscious mind. Will we also become like them as we grow old? We never know.

    1. Lata, I have thought about that.. Probably we would too when we grow old. And hopefully if this post of mine remains till then, I would remind myself that its a part of growing old.. and yes life just slips away….

  4. Oh this is a tough one, Ramya. My parents are 91 and 88 and though we’ve moved cities and chosen to live in the same colony as them, they are irritatingly independent. While I’m grateful that they keep good health, at 51, it drives me up the wall when they think they still have to look after me and my husband! 🙁

    1. I can understand the task you have at hand Corinne. Its insanely difficult to make them understand, especially when they just dont want to accept the fundamental truth that life seems to be slipping away

  5. This post has left me thinking. The points you have raised regarding the older parents’ fear of losing control is valid and in many situations this leads them to become bitter in old age. If someone said a lot of patience is required while dealing with toddlers or for that matter with children at any stage, equal patience is needed while dealing with old parents. I feel middle age is a tough phase to be in where you have to manage the growing children and the aging parents.

    1. Thats right anamika. Just like every child is different and requires a different set of patience and care, the aged are also similar.We need to tackle it differently and be patient in getting them to come around to our way.

  6. You make a lot of sense Ramya. It can be frustrating to look after an ageing parent because they do not want to accept that they are no longer as much in control as they once were. Just like kids, the elderly also need lots of understudying and patience.

    1. Thats true. Its difficult indeed. They often seldom want to accept that life just seems to be slipping away ..

  7. Ramya, I have always loved the way you chose to take sensitive issues and write about them. In fact this is one important yet not so discussed topic. I have been in awe of the fact that as young parents we take a lot of steps to acquire wealth for our kids, yet when I go back home to visit my parents and in-laws, I can see huge homes with so many acquired things yet no one to talk. I can see lots and lots of stories untold in those small and big things lying in the house, but no grandchild has the time to ask what those stories are.
    It is the same story everywhere these days. I personally feel elders need our time and some empathy!

    1. Menaka thank you so much. Honoured with your words. Its true that where the attention we shower on our children is more , despite the fact that the aged become kids as they grow older. And as you say, hoping more stories tumble out from the elderly onto the younger generation.

  8. I stay away from both my mom and my mom-in-law…..the fathers have left them and us alone…..They try to find meaning in life, they try to hide their sorrows, but it becomes evident every now and then and it rips me apart…..all they want is our presence close by so that they can see us, talk to us…..distance from the ageing parents is the worst thing for both the sides…..and sometimes, patience doesn’t work too…..it kills me because I forever feel selfish….They have grown up and grown old….they demand only some proximity and we are unable to provide that too…..

    1. Its tough Sunaina. Actually for them as well as for us. And as much as we try and shower love and patience, it takes time to getting around things for them.

  9. I have seen my grandparents being resistent and defensive to my mother many a times. My grandmother never stays in our home for a few days at a stretch. She insists on being dropped at her own house after that. There are many reasons for the same. She has her friends – who are old like her, who come and visit her often. They are neighbours and sit together sharing small talks for hours. Also, at her house, she could visit the nearby temple in the early morning, something which she would find difficult to do at our house.
    Sometimes, we need to be stand back and observe . Sometimes we need to be silent, listening to what they have to share. At other times, we need to step up and help them. It is confusing indeed. But the basement that should never wear off should be the love and affection for them.

    1. Yes Maliny that is right. I can understand how difficult it could be for your mom. Old age is confusing and it could drive the primary caregiver up the wall. Thanks for sharing your experience here.

  10. Ramya this is such an insightful post. This year I went through taking care of my dad due to a severe illness- My frustrations with him not listening to me and me not able to take care of him – drove me up the wall. As I read your post, I realised I too have figured out that just tepping back and being around when he needs me is far better than giving him advise or getting after his life to do or not do things. Great post. Kudos

    1. TRue Shalini, its tough to get them to listen, and working a more patient way actually works. It may seem tough but its surely not impossible.

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  12. Ramya, this topic makes my heart cry. My both side Parents are not too old but still sometimes, the things are difficult. Their loosing ability to remember the things, their own fight with the ailments, their generation comparing talks. I am blessed to have both of them in the same town. Honestly, I fear the time will come when they will become dependent not because I don’t want to help them but how I will make them feel cared and How I will manage to spend time with them. I think we should talk about these things more to help each other in this middle age issues. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your kind words Upsana. Cross the bridge when it comes. Glad they are doing fine on their own now. But indeed parenting the parent is a tough job!!!

  13. This hits home! As the eldest daughter of my parents I know first hand what it takes to ‘listen’ to and to ‘be there’ for aging parents – my parents have had health issues for many long, esp my father. And the two years when my mother was really ill before her passing away, I experienced a whole range of emotions understanding what it means to be a caregiver for a terminally ill parent. So yes, if we can be attentive to their little needs, be present for when they want to be heard, this alone can mean so much to them. Thanks for writing this post, Ramya!

  14. It’s so difficult to understand what they want. Have you noticed how they become so stubborn and forceful about minor things. Like you said, they wish to be around you yet they wish to stay in their home. It is so confusing and exasperating too. Like you said, being patient is important.

  15. Ramya..this is a very sensitive topic for many of us. Good you wrote about it and it brings back so many memories at many different levels. I lost both my parents few years back and I know how difficult it is to make them understand some things. They are like kids at this age and agree with you that being patient is the key.

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