Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When Adult Children Seek to Reverse Roles

During our 45th reunion at Northwestern University last weekend, I talked for a long time with a dear friend and classmate about a recent upheaval in her life. After many years of keeping her anger and sadness and disappointment largely unexpressed, she finally exploded with anger at her husband, yelling at him for the first time in their 38 years of marriage. When word of this reached their two children, both rushed to the house to do what they described as an "intervention".

She shook his head in disbelief at the thought that these adult children felt the need and the right to intervene in a marital dispute between their parents. "The children were suddenly telling me how to behave, what to do and what to say," she said. "They were so eager to keep the status quo, even though they live independently and have their own lives and families. They were so angry at me for rocking the boat."

As we talked, we agreed that it might help to reframe her adult children's anger and interference as love and concern -- for both parents, for the stability of the family, for themselves as they struggle with a variety of feelings about possible family changes. We also agreed that while it's important to see the love and concern behind their angry words, it was also vital to pay attention to her own inner voice telling her that her life needed to change.

Sometimes interventions from adult children can bring about good, healthy, necessary changes.

My neighbor Yvette and her husband were avid RV-ers for some years after selling their New Jersey home. About five years ago, they were on their way to visit their adult daughter in Arizona when Yvette's husband had a stroke as they were approaching Tucson and died in a hospital there a few days later. After much discussion, some of it heated and tearful, Yvette's daughter convinced her to give up life on the road and buy a house in this community. She sold the RV, invited her elderly mother Rita to move in with her and settled into this community, She has been surprised at how right the decision -- one she would never have considered except for her daughter's urging -- has been for her.  While she expected that she would be taking care of her mother, the situation has taken another turn lately: Yvette has a life-threatening illness and her mother, who is healthy and strong at 92, is there, along with Yvette's daughter, to care for her.

Another neighbor whose failing eyesight and questionable judgment have made him a menace on the road lately has been fielding comments, pleas, and directives from his adult children to relinquish his car  keys. While his reactions have ranged from anger to denial, he is slowly coming to accept the fact that he shouldn't be driving. "I should probably lose my license because I really can't see," he said recently. "And I know the kids aren't trying to give me a hard time. They just want their parents around for awhile longer. I had an accident not long ago. No one was hurt. But it was my fault because I couldn't see. The kids are right. I hate to admit it. I hate to give up driving. But they're right."

It can be a shock to find oneself on the receiving end of adult child concern.

My long-time friend Maurice spent many years caring for a difficult, demanding mother who played havoc with his romantic relationships. But his is a culture that expects children to care for aging parents with no professional interventions. "She gave me life and nurtured me when I was young and helpless," he would tell me as I rolled my eyes in twenty-something angst when we were dating many years ago. "What am I supposed to do? Our culture doesn't do retirement or nursing homes. We embrace our parents. We don't throw them away like trash." And I would always get tears in my eyes when he would say that, suddenly ashamed of my own impatience with her and admiring his dedication.

Maurice, who never married, took loving care of his mother until she died last year at 104. Now he is amused and a bit surprised to be the object of adult child care and concern. When I called him to congratulate him on his 82nd birthday recently, he told me that he was going for a long visit with his beloved niece Rachel in San Francisco. "She takes wonderful care of her old uncle," he told me with a gentle chuckle. "I have my own room in her house. I think it's there -- ready and waiting -- for the time I can't care for myself independently. It's scary to think that that time could be near. But it's also immensely reassuring that there is a younger person who loves me and cares."

It can be a delicate balance -- this loving and caring and beginnings of role reversal. We've seen it as our own parents have aged and passed away. We, as adult children, have lived the concern, the frustration, the juggling of caregiving duties with our busy lives, the loving desire that they be safe and happy, the grief at losing them in a sad variety of ways. Some have gone quickly of heart attacks, unable to say a final "Goodbye" as my parents did. Others have experienced the heartbreak of the slow loss of a parent with dementia. We have witnessed their denial, their raging, their grudging acceptance of new limitations and losses.

And now, slowly but surely, it is starting to be our turn.

It can be disconcerting to see the next generation -- so soon -- poised to reverse roles with us. It can feel invasive, even ridiculous to be experiencing interventions, directives and even scoldings from our children. It hurts to even imagine letting go of some of our adult freedoms and to admit to that we're beginning to get frail in some ways, that our days of full independence may be numbered.

And yet it's also reassuring to know that our adult children are slowly stepping in, ready and willing to help.

As the transition starts, it's important to see the love behind the concerns and directives of our adult children.

It's important to set boundaries and limits when they go too far, too soon. We can thank them for caring while insisting that, right now, we are perfectly capable of handling certain things ourselves and admitting that there will come a time when that is not the case.

And we can do our adult children a great favor by having legal paperwork -- trusts, wills, power of attorney, end of life and healthcare directives -- as well as written wishes for end of life and funeral plans, locations and numbers of bank and investment accounts -- ready and in a place the children know to find them.

It is also important to pay attention -- even when it hurts -- to our frailties and to hear our children's concerns and accept their help in letting go.

Visiting with another dear college friend during and after our 45th reunion in Chicago last weekend, I listened as he told me  that he and his wife of 44 years are divorcing and that he is building a new life for himself alone with a mixture of sadness and anticipation.

While they may be choosing separate paths now, he and his wife spent years parenting four wonderful children, all now adults. And all are now poised to comfort and to embrace them both with love and concern. There are no villains in this family scenario, only people who for so many years did the very best they could. And that best was outstanding.

I remember seeing that love in the Christmas card pictures I received of the children over so many years. Their faces beaming at a camera held by him or his wife, the way they cuddled each other, spoke volumes about the love in their home.

And the love is wonderfully evident in the way these children -- now grown and on their own -- are caring for their parents during this family upheaval. They are planning for holidays filled with love and joy as they divide themselves up to include their parents.

While I was visiting my friend, he got an email message from one adult daughter, telling him how much she loves him and how much she's looking forward to him coming to spend Thanksgiving with her and her family. And another daughter calls him daily, just to express love and to check on his day, his mood, his general well-being.

Those sweet little girls in the Christmas card pictures have become these loving young women, bringing true comfort and joy to their newly-parted parents, both of whom they love so much.

What a fascinating time in life: to see the beginnings of our being nurtured by those we once nurtured, to have life coming full circle with our caregivers waiting so visibly in the wings.


  1. My dad who is 84 gave up driving a few years back on his own because he didn't feel he could drive safely any more. My mom is now 79 & her driving may come to an end soon. She loves her freedom so my sisters and I are hoping she will give it up without a fight when the time comes.

  2. That doesn't always happen When I was at the hospital with my Mom in Quebec, people are seen as an un necessary burden. They spoil your life style. They sit watching everything you do and criticize when they dont like something. You have to run to hospitals with them, they soil themselves and they hold onto their wealth.... so many reasons to help put them out of their misery lol
    To me....who love family and especially old people, I always found it shocking.
    It's not only children who have no rights but old people as well as more and more people believe in the me first ideology.
    So sad.

  3. I love the advice you gave regarding as the transition starts to see the love behind the concerns and directives of our adult children.

    I love reading your post.
    Happy Halloween.

  4. As always, so much wisdom and helpful insight, Kathy. Wonderful post.

  5. Dear Dr. Kathy,

    the world you are describing here is the best of all possible worlds, even in the case of a long relationship coming to an end under the benevolent eyes of grown children. It’s a world of love and care and the famous ‘being there’; too many other worlds exist, worlds where parents and adult children have long lost interest in each other, where old people are seen as a burden and young people are too busy with their own problems.

  6. Great post. Friko has also raised a good point. Those who have the support of their offspring or other relatives are the lucky ones, whether they realize it or not, and whether they chafe under it or not.

  7. This great post gives me peace. We are having to reverse the roles for my mother and father in law, and it's a tricky road at times. Thank you for posting this~

  8. I had a preview of things to come when I was in Italy last April with my daughter and had my wallet and all my money and credit cards stolen. Every morning she checked in with me, "Now, Mom, do you have enough money?" while handing over borrowed funds. When she loaned me a credit card to purchase my train ticket to Venice she said "Now don't lose it!" Echos of my past; I'm sure I said the same thing to her at some point in her youth.

  9. This was another great post. It is indeed a fine balance we walk when it comes to giving and taking advice once our children are grown. I know this from experience.

  10. Oh Kathy.....what a wonderful post today. I think it is so very admirable when adult children step in "when needed" to help their aging parents. Unfortunately, in my case, my adult children are not even able to take care of I don't know who will be there for me should the need arise.



  11. Hi There, Oh--that old role reversal... It's really just part of life, isn't it???? AND--none of us know what will happen in the future... Thank God though for family who love us and would be willing to help as needed....

    George and I certainly don't want to be a burden on any of our kids... George's Dad/Mom were stubborn and didn't want help UNTIL it was desperately needed... It was hard for them to move in with George's sister --but it was what worked out best for them... Tain't easy for anyone...

    Great post... As an independent 70 yr old--I cannot imagine involving my children in my life and future---but know that that time MAY come sometime....(That's one reason I'd be happy to die BEFORE life comes to that---but know that that is not up to me!!!)


  12. What a wonderful, thoughtful post, Dr. McCoy. My parents still live independently and are wonderfully strong and "with it", but I sometimes wonder, will I eventually be in a position to care for them, help them make decisions?

    So many stages of life...


  13. This really hit home with me, since we have JUST moved to AZ and have my 85 yr old mother now living with us. It is a delicate balance, a different sort of dance. Thank you for your words of wisdom, I need to hear them and stop being so impatient.

  14. Know just what you mean. Our kids often surprise us by thinking that we are fighting when we are only having a 'discussion.'

  15. When our Mom could no longer live independantly and a role reversal became necessary as my Brother and I struggled to make important Life Changing decisions FOR her... it was AGONIZING and felt so Intrusive and was so delicate, since obviously she was resistant, as I know I'd probably be too. It has altered our Relationship since she obviously hated the transition and losing her Independance and decision making capacity at such a grand Old Age she had attained. I accepted the 'blame' for having to make the hard decisions, since my younger Brother is so close to Mom that he couldn't bear to be on the receiving end of her Anger and Frustration... and I Pray that the Nursing Home she now has to reside it, that can meet her at her point of need, is a place she is adjusting to and making Friends at... even though since my Brother chose to move her closer to him I can no longer visit her Daily like we were able to when she was in a Nursing Home in our State. I miss our time together terribly... and I have struggled to have Peace about her Anger towards me having to make what was only the most Difficult and Loving of Decisions possible and obviously necessary.

    Dawn... The Bohemian