What to Do With Your Parents Once You're a Grown-Up

As your mom and dad enter their autumn years, what's most important to you?

Posted May 04, 2012

(c) Ariel Skelley www.fotosearch.com
Source: (c) Ariel Skelley www.fotosearch.com

Note: Though I write here initially about relating to Dad and then about Mom, the article applies equally to both.

This morning, before I went out to my therapy office to help couples with their marriage problems, I paused to watch the two squirrels who live in my back yard. 

As the two fast furry creatures took turns playfully chasing each other, agilely jumping from branch to branch, I thought to myself, “Those animals truly have fun with each other."  

The squirrels' playful interactions reminded of a lament that one of my clients recently had expressed. 

“I’ve been looking back on my adult relationship with my father who died this past year.  With hindsight I wish I had devoted more hours in my overbooked schedule to enjoying him.  He was such a special person, so gracious, artistic, interesting, generous.  And he’d been such a devoted father to me.  How did it happen that, starting from when I left home for college, I spent so little time with him? Sure, I phoned him most Sundays, yet because I made spending time with him such a low priority, I barely knew him from an adult-to-adult perspective.”

While a father is raising offspring, squirrel or human, he focuses on getting food for the child, keeping the child safe from harm, and teaching the child what it will need in order to function eventually as an adult. 

After all, a key goal of parenting, in addition to enjoying the children, is to enable them to accomplish what psychologists refer to as “differentiation,” that is, the ability to stand independently on their own feet, separate from their parents. 

My concern is that American society may go too far in fostering independence in our children.  

Young adults, as reflected in late age of marriage, tend to have "relationships" rather than to commit to building a permanent relationship.  Perhaps they have not learned that adult functioning is about both independence and interdependence, about both personal work identity and family belonging.

Did your parents raise you to value self-sufficiency and personal success excessively, drowning out the importance of sustained family bonds?

Folks these days live longer than in earlier eras.  Functioning in relatively good health up through the 80's or 90's has become a norm rather than an exception. 

With the years of independent adulthood often stretching from age 20 toward ages in the 80's or even 90's, there’s now a long middle phase of many decades during which children and their parents both are enjoying prime years of adulthood.

During this lengthy middle phase of life, what does “independent adult” mean?  Does independence open options for all-the-more-gratifying intergenerational connections between offspring and their parents, or does independence herald disengagement from family-of-origin?

Enter the goat, who knows not Mom.

I once watched goats grazing in a meadow.  Some Mamas had a Little walking next to her.  As if attached by an invisible thread, Mama and Little moved everywhere side by side. 

I noticed also middle-sized goats.  These older youths sometimes interacted with Mama, and sometimes strayed off to frolic and graze with other goats of similar age and size. 

When goats grow up however, Mama seemed to become just another goat in the herd.  As Little Goats become self-sufficient, they leave Mom.  They focus only on establishing their own totally separate lives… or at least that’s how the goats appeared to me.   

Does the total independence of adult goats offer a legitimate model for people? 

The grow-up = grow apart option is no doubt attractive to young people whose family-of-origin experiences were negative.  If Mom or Dad was and continues to be damagingly narcissistic, unpleasantly volatile, seriously intrusitve or painfully critical, minimal connecting may be a sensible choice. 

For young people with signifiantly difficult parents, the option to move to distant cities, build their own lives, establish their own identities, and surround themselves with friendship circles of their own choosing can be truly liberating. 

When these young adults equate differentiation from their parents with distance and disengagement, they may be choosing a path of greater emotional health and happiness

Are disengaged goats becoming a too-common American model for family adult-to-adult relationships, even for adults whose parents have been positive influences in their lives? 

It’s easy to see how an adult man or woman may find that enjoying adult-to-adult time with mom or dad may slip to the bottom of the priorities list.  Adult moms and offspring in our society all too often live miles apart.  They typically see each other relatively rarely, enjoying few fun times working and playing together as co-adults.  The many busy-nesses of modern life also keep mother and offspring’s lives in relatively separate spheres. 

Yet the adult-to-adult years are when a parent-offspring relationship can be maximally fulfilling.  Interest in each other now can be a two-way street. 

Parents and offspring can enjoy each others’ company without either feeling care-taker responsibilities.  They can get to know each other more frankly than they did as care-taker and kid.  Adult-to-adult parent-child time together can include mutual helping, learning from each other, and shared fun. These bonds can develop to a depth and breadth that few other relationships can equal. 

The final phase of parent-offspring interactions begins as Dad and Mom become increasingly less able to fend for themselves.  

(c) Big Cheese Photo www.fotosearch.com
Source: (c) Big Cheese Photo www.fotosearch.com

With serious aging, the caretaker-kid roles flip.  No longer able to sustain themselves without help, aging folks become dependent on parenting relationships from their offspring. 

While they may not directly gather and prepare the food they eat, adult children typically do insure that their parents live in a situation where they are well fed, moving them eventually perhaps to a group situation where others do the cooking.  To keep parents safe adult kids need to encourage parents to give up driving as their eyesight and reflexes weaken.  Adult kids keep an eye on parents' medical situation, make sure they are able to take the right pills at the right time.  They ease them into using a cane as their balance gets iffy. 

While “enjoy” might not be the right word for what offspring feel as they witness Dad orMom’s decline, they can savor the sharing of parents' last years, partaking as intimately as possible in the end-of-life chapters as a parent’s body and soul gradually slip away. 

A complaining, quick-to-anger, or unpleasantly demanding elder of course can tarnish this last phase of parents’ lives, diminishing their offspring’s interest in interacting with them in their elder years.  I've posted here and here about dealing with parents who are especially negative and hurtful.

The privilege of sharing with them the evening phases of their lives then transitions into duty.

The duty dilemma raises questions about the widely-held Biblical principle of “Honor your father and mother.”  How does one apply this principle if a parent is elderly and at the same time seriously upsetting to interact with?  

One explanation from the oral Biblical tradition suggestions an interesting option.  “Honoring” requires only that adult children be certain that their parents are adequately fed, sheltered, and clothed.  Adult children are not required to minister these services personally.  Hiring others is fine, especially if contact with the parent impacts the offspring detrimentally. 

Spending time together thus is a privilege, hopefully for both parent and offspring, not a requirement. 

So back to squirrels and the goats.  What can they teach us?

My hope is that this brief look at squirrels and goats can invite each of us to reassess each Father's and Mother’s Day which model we are following in our own adult-to-adult parent-child relationships. 

It’s likely that the two squirrels I watched who seemed to enjoy so much each other’s company were in fact not a parent and offspring duo.  No matter. The quality of their joyful togetherness is what appeals to me. 

Adult-to-adult goats by contrast exemplify for me the contemporary tendency of adult parents and offspring to live parallel rather than interactive lives. 

Here’s three questions for assessing the extent to which you and your parents interact like squirrels or goats.

1. On your priorities list, where do you put time-sharing with your parents, not only on Father's and Mother’s Day, but year-round? 

2. To what extent have the independence of your adult years, geographic distance, and being busy slipped you into excessive distance and disengagement? 

3. How successfully have you found activities and attitudes that make your intergenerational time gratifying for you both?   

My personal favorite activity, for instance, with my Dad in his late 90s was when I took him in his wheelchair for a walk on the paved bikepath alongside Cherry Creek.  Our sharing of enjoyment of the delicate flowers, the new spring leaves, the whirring of the passing bicyclists and the bright sunshine are how I forever want to remember us together.


Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is a Denver clinical psychologist and marriage counselor who specializes in teaching couples the skills for fixing their relationship when it runs into difficulties.  An author of multiple books on therapy, marriage and parenting, Dr. Heitler's current main projects beyond her clinical work are writing this blog and her online alternative to marriage therapy, PowerOfTwoMarriage.