If you were to ask an adult child if they would like their parent to have companionship in their later years, he or she would likely say “yes.” However, most just don’t expect that companionship to come in the form of their parent dating! From experience with my clients, I have found that if a parent has a romantic relationship in their later years, it can be an uncomfortable change for their adult children. It stirs up surprising emotions and is an Essential Conversation most people don’t want to have – parent or adult child! So what is all this discomfort about and how can we get through this with more ease and harmony?
I can speak to this topic both professionally and personally. After my mom died, my dad was quite depressed and visibly grieving for the first year. One day I picked up my dad from his retirement residence and took him out to lunch, where I asked him if he had thought about dating again. I told him that he had been a wonderful caregiver to my mom for many years after her stroke, and he deserved to be happy and have companionship. My dad shrugged his shoulders and didn’t seem remotely interested in the topic. However, to my surprise he called me three days later and told me that he had asked Betty, one of the women from his lunch table, on a date!
Despite having encouraged my dad to date, when he asked me to drive him to get flowers for Betty, I found myself feeling annoyed. I thought, “I can’t remember him bringing flowers to mom. Now she is gone and he is off having a party for himself.” Can you imagine this sentiment from the very person who pushed her dad to date!
While my dad shopped in the flower store, I began to work through my feelings and realized that the voice in my head was of my 10-year-old self who felt protective of her mother. In truth, my dad had a right to be happy and I didn’t have the right to judge his behaviour; he was an adult who could make his own decisions.
Protectiveness for a parent who has passed; feeling that it is “too soon” after the other parent has died; jealousy that your parent has less time for you now that they’re busy with a new relationship; concern that your parent is being taken advantage of; embarrassment that your parent is “acting like a teenager in love”— these are some of the feelings adult children will confess experiencing when their parent has a relationship later in life.
The irony may be that they encouraged their parent to move into a retirement residence because they were concerned their parent was lonely. They wanted their mom or dad to have companionship, but they didn’t envision they would date, and maybe even fall in love!
Easing your discomfort:
I firmly believe that love and intimacy are needs we have throughout our life and don’t have an expiration date. If your parent has been fortunate enough to make a romantic connection later in life and you find yourself uncomfortable with that situation, the following are ideas to help ease your discomfort:
1) Take time for self-reflection to try to figure out exactly what aspects of the situation are bothering you. Is it that you feel you have lost your parent to someone else, or are feeling protective of your parent? Remember that it’s not unusual to have these types of feelings, so there is no need to be hard on yourself.
2) Consider talking to a friend, confidant or professional who can help you work through those feelings and view the situation from a different angle.
3) Decide how much of your feelings you want and need to share with your parent. They may have noticed you are upset and may be relieved to talk with you about this, or it might be better to wait until you are able to work through some of your difficult emotions.
There are two key things to remember as your work through any discomfort you may have about your parents dating: the first is to be gentle with both yourself and your parent. Changes in relationships, such as your parent dating, take time to adapt to. The second is to remember your parent is an adult who has the right to make their own decisions, even if you don’t like those choices. The only time we should step in is if our parent is cognitively compromised by dementia and doing something that may harm themselves or someone else.
It is true that “loves springs eternal.” May we all be fortunate enough to have love and companionship throughout our lives!
Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.