Adult Children Caring for Elderly Parents: Building Perspective

Dr. Robert Ritzema

March 12, 2018

Why do adult children, who used to get along well with their elderly parents, sometimes encounter relationship difficulties when the parent turns to them for help? Why does an older parent receiving help from an adult child sometimes feel misunderstood or treated dismissively by that child? 

Take the case of "Joyce" and her adult daughter "Karen" who love each other deeply, but can't seem to get along. Joyce is in her eighties and has moved into an independent living facility. She functions well for the most part, but needs some assistance with shopping, cleaning, and paperwork. Karen works full-time and parents her own children, but still finds time to come by about once a week to help. Her mom welcomes the daughter's contribution, but says "Karen always wants to be in control." She adds, "Karen doesn't understand what it's like to give up your home and lose so much of your independence." Joyce wants more say in her own affairs. Karen is glad to help her mother, but wants some appreciation for the sacrifice that helping entails. She wonders, "Why can't mom get where I'm coming from?" Each feels misunderstood. Each has tried to explain her feelings to the other, only to wind up more frustrated. Each says that their relationship used to be better than it is now.

I've heard similar stories from other adult children of elderly parents. Why are conflicts common between parents in need and adult children who try to address that need? Several factors can contribute. 

For one, when a parent needs help, the historical pattern of who gives and who receives is flipped on its head. Adjusting to this role reversal is hard for both parties. Naming this role reversal and acknowledging it's awkwardness might be a start for grappling with it. 

For another, such situations require working together, often more closely than parent and child have done for decades. Not all relationships thrive when there is more need for communication and cooperation. Buried difficulties and tensions resurface, perhaps decades later. Some conflict resolution may be needed. 

The rest of this article focuses on a third reason for such difficulties: a mutual inability to understand the other person's perspective.

Building Perspective

Perspective-taking is crucial for healthy relationships. Actively wondering how others experience this situation, more often than not, generates some understanding of the thoughts and intentions behind their behavior. We can put ourselves in the other person's shoes, imagining what we would think or feel if we were them. As described in this interview, neuro-scientists have suggested that this capacity is based on the activity of mirror neurons, nerve cells that fire both when we perform an action and when we see someone else perform that same action. When we convey to someone that we are able to understand their perspective and empathize with them, it is profoundly affirming. The book of Hebrews tells of how Jesus Christ does this for us:

"For we do not have a high priest who is able to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way as we are--yet he did not sin" (Heb. 4:9, NIV). Reassured by Christ's understanding, we are able to "approach God's throne of grace with confidence." (v. 10)

Facing challenges

Unlike Christ, we may have difficulty taking another person's perspective. For example, several lines of research have found that those in positions of power have more difficulty than do the powerless in understanding what someone else might be feeling. In the mother-daughter conflict I described, there was a clear power differential--Joyce was dependent on Karen's help, but Karen didn't have a reciprocal need for assistance. That power differential may play a role in Karen's difficulty in understanding her mom's perspective. A related factor contributing to Karen's trouble putting herself in Joyce's shoes is that she had never before seen her mom struggling so to accomplish basic tasks or being so frustrated by her limitations. The daughter's memories of whom her mom used to be have interfered with her understanding of whom her mom had become.

How about Joyce? Why does she have such a hard time understanding and appreciating Karen's perspective? Though Karen is middle-aged, Joyce has probably never fully seen her daughter as an equal. I suspect that's common among those of us with adult children. Somehow, though we know full well that our daughter or son has been living successfully in the world of adults, we still see them as our little girl or boy, not quite mature, to be indulged or guided or worried over just like we always did. We can maintain that illusion for decades, but it is no longer sustainable when that child starts taking care of us. Karen's mom can't see how mature she's become and that her daughter is now more competent than she is. Karen is not controlling so much as seeking her mom's welfare, no longer a dutiful child but a caring adult who, like all of us, wants to be appreciated when she extends herself to help. 

Develop Empathy

In this situation as in others in which an elderly adult needs care and an adult child tries to provide it, both parent and child may well have difficulty understanding the other's perspective. Ironically, those we think we know the best sometimes become the hardest for us to understand. If you're a parent receiving help or an adult child offering help, don't be discouraged when there are conflicts and misunderstandings. Try your best to imagine what your loved one is thinking or feeling. Listen to your child or parent, trying to hear what is being said rather than hearing only what you expect him or her to say. Understanding the perspective of the one you love is one of the greatest gifts of love you can give.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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