Are You a Helicopter Child?

Keeping a close watch on aging parents is natural and necessary, but hovering too closely can cause problems too.

Anne Borrowdale was visiting her parents in Suffolk, England, when a salesman rang the doorbell and her father – a minister in his mid-80s at the time – answered it. After several minutes of chatter, Borrowdale stepped in. “I went to the door and said firmly, ‘He’s told you he’s not interested. Goodbye,’ and shut the door,” says Borrowdale, 59, an author and speaker in Oxford, England.
Borrowdale soon regretted it.
“I’d treated him like a child who wasn’t capable of making sensible decisions anymore in front of a stranger,” she says. “I’d let my worry about elderly people getting conned override his dignity.”
Similar to helicopter parents, who hover too closely over their adolescent children, adult children may find their involvement in their aging parents’ lives is unnecessary, unwelcome or both – even if just for a moment, as in Borrowdale’s case.
“There’s an inherent tension between an older adult’s desire for independence, desire to make their own choices [and] take their own risks, and the adult child’s broader vision of saying, ‘You can’t do that because it’s too risky; you will hurt yourself; this person is not good to be around,’” says Carol Levine , director of the United Hospital Fund’s Families and Health Care Project, which develops partnerships between health care professionals and family caregivers. “It is a protective response – and that’s not bad because there are certain things that all of us need to be protected from by somebody who cares for us.”
But sometimes, adult children can overstep their bounds – or at least be perceived as overstepping their bounds. That can alienate parents, who might resist their children’s involvement by turning away. It can infantilize them, too. “What you don’t want to do with older people is confuse [them] with children,” says Robert Kane , director of the University of Minnesota’s Center on Aging. “They have opinions and beliefs and, in some cases, they have the right to take informed risk. You can’t take away that right – you don’t want to take it away. What you want to do is make sure they truly understand the risk.”
Adult children who are extremely involved in their parents’ care might also make the situation worse for the health care staff at hospitals or long-term care facilities , says Sherry Saturno , a social worker and executive director of the Hudson Valley Care Coalition, a nonprofit in New York.
“Children may become hyper-vigilant and easily angered because they can’t control what is physically happening with their parents, so they’ll try to micromanage issues they can control,” such as their meals or clothes, she says. “In turn, that affects the health care staff because children in such a situation may misdirect their anger and frustration to the facility staff.” Most of the time, however, adult children are more than welcome in such facilities. “Their presence, their interest and their support are really important,” Levine says. “They are often the glue that keeps things together.”
Here’s how to toe the line between caring and overbearing:
1. Start discussions early.
The time to start talking with your aging parents about tough issues related to aging is now, says Patricia Parmelee , director of the Center for Mental Health and Aging at the University of Alabama. “It makes families uncomfortable, and so we delay,” she says. “And the typical situation that happens is decisions get made under pressure and on a very short timeline, and at least a good portion of the time, nobody’s happy with the outcome.”
So get a head start on the conversation. Talk about what type of medical care your parents want if they start to decline, the features of a facility they could see themselves living in and whom they’d like as a health care proxy.
Be prepared for denial and pushback, Kane says. He suggests taking a practical approach to discussions by pointing out to older adults at risk for heart failure, for example, that their multistory home won’t always be the right fit for their abilities. “When you’re dealing with your parents, you bring a huge amount of emotional baggage and history,” he says. “You need to recognize that you’re going to be the adult in the room, and so you have to basically find a way to sort of push that down.”
2. Pick your battles.
Some issues adult children simply can’t ignore – if their parents have stopped bathing or cleaning the home, for example, or are neglecting to take medications appropriately or see the doctor. Getting lost or into car accidents are major red flags, too, Kane says. “You can argue about where is that line of criticality, but at some point you need to step in – and stepping in is not easy,” he says.
But other battles – say, under-tipping at restaurants, failing to wear a hearing aid or appearing to play favorites with children – are less important to win, Levine says. “Your job as a parent is to give your child the tools for independence and making choices and being responsible.” But as the child, you have to help your parents maintain independence as much as possible, she says. “It’s kind of a reverse trajectory.”
For Borrowdale, an argument not worth having was whether or not her mom, who had suffered a stroke, should go out on walks and cross busy streets in the neighborhood around her care facility. “My mum needed to be independent, however worried it made us,” Borrowdale says.
3. Seek support.
Nearly 40 percent of American adults are caring for a sick or elderly family member, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. “Caregivers are thought to be the largest source of support for long-term care for adults, and this number is going to grow with the aging of the population,” says Sara Czaja, scientific director of the University of the Miami’s Center on Aging.
In other words, you’re not alone, and there are resources to help. Enlist support from friends, family and – if your parent is in a long-term care facility – health care staff. Social workers, for example, can help coordinate meetings with physicians, nurses, physical therapists and others to make sure everyone is on the same page with the resident’s short- and long-term goals, Saturno says. Many facilities have family support groups that help families feel less alone, she adds.
Bringing an expert – be it a counselor, lawyer or a religious leader – into the mix can also help children and parents tackle sensitive issues while maintaining the positive aspects of their relationships, Levine says. “It’s a complicated situation, and when it gets out of control. is where everybody’s miserable,” she says. “I think that’s a point where some counseling … could be helpful.”
4. Take care of yourself.
Let’s face it: Being a family caregiver is stressful, and it can put you at risk for anxiety, depression and a host of physical illnesses – particularly if you’re caring for someone with a serious illness like Alzheimer’s disease, Czaja says. Sometimes caregivers neglect their own health “because they’re so involved in the care of others,” she adds. “It’s important that they continue to take care of themselves.”
Research shows that caregivers who learn self-care and stress-management techniques can improve their emotional health and well-being, and make them feel less burdened by their caregiving duties, Czaja says. “Ultimately,” she says, “if you’re not taking care of yourself and you get sick, then no one’s going to be there to give the care that’s needed.”

By Anna Medaris Miller, Staff Writer-U.S. News

Anna Medaris Miller is a Health & Wellness editor at U.S. News

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