Respecting Aging Parents–a Two Way Street

It Is About Respecting Aging Parents, But How Do You Do It?

It is hard to be an adult child to an aging parent. But it is also hard to be an aging parent being cared for by an adult child. One solution: Think of this relationship as a partnership, not as one family member providing a service to another.

Indeed, the phrase “care partners” is catching on in some corners of the family caregiving world. But whether the description works for you or not, don’t ignore the idea behind it.


Helicopter children

You’ve heard about helicopter parents—those moms and dads who obsess over how to protect their young children from the risks of life. Well, helicopter children, it seems, are those  who can’t stop worrying about their aging parents. Should they stay in their home? What if they fall? Is it time to stop driving?

These are not trivial questions. And there often comes a time when they need to be asked. But, if not used with care, they can be corrosive and counterproductive.

Which brings us back to the ethical underpinnings of family caregiving. For Christians and Jews, the starting point is the Fifth Commandment in the Hebrew Bible, usually translated as “honor your father and mother.” Later, the book of Leviticus, we are told to “respect our mother and father.”

The Quran says, “Whether one or more attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor.”  Hindus are taught to “serve” their parents, especially in old age.  Buddhism teaches that children should respect aging parents, and that one form of respect is listening to their advice.

Parenting  your parents.

What do respect and honor mean? Well, here is what it does not mean:  In self-help books and blogs, you may come across the phrase, “parenting your parents,” or, even worse, “You have become your parents, and they have become your children.”

No they have not.

While the time may come when you have to help your parents perform the most intimate physical tasks, and even help them make decisions, they will never be your children. To treat them as if they are is to dishonor and disrespect your aging parents.  As long as they are cognitively able to make decisions, frail seniors have the right to make their own choices. Even if you disagree with them.  That’s what respect is all about.

And that’s where those helicopter children go so far off course.

Starting a conversation with, “mom, you have to…” not only shows a profound lack of respect, it is a recipe for failure. You wouldn’t start a conversation with a spouse that way (at last you wouldn’t if you wanted to accomplish anything).

It is all about talking

At the same time, respect must be a two-way street. Children must respect parents, but aging parents also must respect their children and their desire to help.

In the end, it all comes down to talking. Nothing shows less respect than assuming you know what your parent wants, without actually asking. Your mom may not want to have that conversation but there are ways to encourage it. And often, she does want to talk. She just needs a little nudge.


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