What Aging Parents Want From Their Kids

Aging Parents and Kids
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There’s a fine line between caring and controlling—but older adults and their grown children often disagree on where it is.

In a 2004 study, two professors from the State University of New York at Albany, the public-health professor Mary Gallant and the sociologist Glenna Spitze, explored the issue in interviews with focus groups of older adults.

Among their findings: Their participants “express a strong desire for both autonomy and connection in relations with their adult children, leading to ambivalence about receiving assistance from them.

They define themselves as independent but hope that children’s help will be available as needed. They are annoyed by children’s overprotectiveness but appreciate the concern it expresses. They use a variety of strategies to deal with their ambivalent feelings, such as minimizing the help they receive, ignoring or resisting children’s attempts to control …”

“One of the scariest things to people as they age is that they don’t feel in control anymore,” says Steven Zarit, a professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. “So if you tell your dad not to go out and shovel snow, you assume that he’ll listen. It’s the sensible thing. But his response will be to go out and shovel anyway. It’s a way of holding on to a life that seems to be slipping back.”  

Whether that means he’s independent or intransigent depends on who’s making the call. A recent study by Zarit and his colleagues looked at parental stubbornness as a complicating factor in intergenerational relationships. Not surprisingly, adult children were more likely to say their parents were acting stubborn than the parents were to see the behavior in themselves.

Understanding why parents may be “insisting, resisting, or persisting in their ways or opinions,” the study reads, can lead to better communication. Zarit’s advice to the adult child:

“Do not pick arguments. Do not make a parent feel defensive. Plant an idea, step back, and bring it up later. Be patient.”

But that goes both ways. Parents engage in magical thinking—our children should have known x, or should have done y—and then we’re disappointed if they don’t come through. The onus here is on the older parents to speak up.  The clearer they are in describing their feelings and stating their needs, the better the chances of having those needs met.

Karen Fingerman, who was a co-author on Zarit’s study, suggests a different approach. A professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, Fingerman is also the director of a three-generational study that focuses on middle-aged children and how they care for the generations above and below them.

“The research shows that they have a pretty good idea of what their parents’ needs really are,” she says. “Older parents might do better to try to understand and address the child’s concerns. We found in our research that when the middle-aged adult is worried about the aging parent, the parent is both annoyed by that and feels more loved.”


Miscommunications can happen, especially if both parties have glaringly different views on how to age gracefully.

One of the best things to keep in mind is that as human beings, we wish to keep our independence. We have been taught to “fight against the dying of the light” and to always stay true to who were are. Is it so surprising then, that an aging parent would be defensive when this subject is broached?

One of the best compromises, to begin with, is Home Health Care. It will allow you peace of mind, knowing a professional is taking care of your parents. Home Health Care will also allow your parents to keep some of their independence and feel comfortable in their own homes.

That way when you do visit, they aren’t questioning if you’re coming to actually see them or if you’re coming to judge them and check their food labels for expiration dates.

The best thing for everyone involved is to try to see the other person’s perspective. Don’t assume the worst and remember to give each other the benefit of the doubt.


Superior Senior Home Care offers a complimentary consultation with an advisor to help you determine your loved one’s home care needs. To schedule your free consultation, call 805.430.8767 or contact us online.

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