When I ask people whom they think will help them when they get older, without hesitation most answer “my children.” It’s true that adult children are often a notable source of support as people age. And—if a person has adult children who haven’t always gotten along—they may tell me they know their kids will be able to work together when it matters, including to help with their care or to harmoniously manage the settling of their estate.
Similarly, adult children often have assumptions and expectations for their older parents. Some of these may include: that their parents will want to spend as much time as possible with their grandchildren and will want to babysit when they go back to work; that their parents will want to move in with them as they get older; or, conversely, that their parents will never consider leaving the home they raised them in.
In today’s world, some of the realities for adult children include: working in other countries and not being present to provide the help needed to their parents; adult children who are pulled between competing responsibilities of parenthood, full-time work and helping their parents; and siblings who don’t get along with each other and can’t work together on their parents’ behalf. In addition, people are often shocked that their children have different values from each other. I have frequently heard parents or adult children themselves say, “We were raised in the same house, how could we look at this matter so differently or feel so differently about how to approach it?”
For older adults, the realities in today’s world include people who have active, busy lives with their own dreams and ideas of how they want to spend their time—and this may or may not include a significant amount of time with grandchildren. I have heard people say, “I love my grandkids and value my time with them, but I raised my kids and now want the freedom to do other things”. In addition, most older adults I have known have stated they would prefer not to move in with their children if they needed additional help. It’s important to add that the vision of the older person who refuses to leave the family home is becoming less common as well. Many people recognize that the home they are in now may not be the best one for their current life stage and are open to considering other options.
What is the solution for overcoming the assumptions and expectations that may interfere with our family relationships? The answer is essential conversations with our family members. However, prior to talking with anyone else, we need to think about what we want, what we are willing to do and not do, and what matters to us.
Next, we need to have open and honest conversations. If you are the older adult, you can share with your family what you want as you age, and what you are hoping for from each family member. Then ask them if this is realistic for them. Similarly, if you are the adult child, you can talk to your parents about the relationship you would like with them as they get older, the ways you might assist them, and how you’d like them to be involved in your life. And, again, you can ask how that fits with their vision for their life. These conversations will evolve over time as the realities in everyone’s lives shift and change.
It may seem quite foreign to talk openly about these issues. Yet, the rewards are priceless. Most problems that I have observed in the over 30 years I’ve worked with families were caused by not talking openly, and by assumptions and expectations that were never checked out. The disappointments and hurts I’ve witnessed—many that reverberate for generations—usually could have been avoided with self-reflection and open conversation with other family members.
Here is to better understanding and harmony across the generations—and to the essential conversations that will help get you there!
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.