Most of us come into the world viewing our parents as healthy, strong, and everlasting. As we grow and age, the naive feeling that they are a perpetual part of our lives fades. Their hearing weakens, their gait slows, their memories dim, and the experience can provoke feelings of anger, anxiety, fear, and frustration for adult children.
“Many people struggle as they witness an age-related decline in their parents’ functioning,” said Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University and the director of its Center on Longevity. “Cultural scripts that greatly value agency and autonomy equate vulnerability with failure. Pushing that message to its extreme, we all fail at some point.”
It’s a stressful transition when adult children begin to see their parents less as capable caregivers and more as those needing care themselves. Children begin to wonder how quickly a decline will accelerate, how financially sound their parents are, what their future living situation will be. The shifting roles between child and parent can challenge family dynamics, made more complicated by negative stereotypes about aging, which contribute to the feeling that growing older is something people must resist or deny.
“It’s a strange shift from when they were responsible for you. Now you might be responsible for them, and they’re not listening to your orders the way an 8-year-old would,” said Alan Castel, principal investigator at UCLA’s Memory & Lifespan Cognition Lab and author of “Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging.”
A desire to deny the decline
There is a subtle grief children experience as their aging parents begin to lose functioning. Children may want to deny their parents’ decline, which experts say can be amplified by a culture suggesting aging should be fought or hidden.
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Negative stereotypes about aging can complicate the dynamic between adult children who see their parents in need of help and the parents who are apt to reject anything that identifies them as older or more vulnerable.
“When you think of an older adult, you think of maybe wise or kind, but explicitly and implicitly we also see older people as smelly, slow, bad drivers, stubborn or crotchety,” Castel said.
Challenges of the ‘sandwich generation.’
The natural and everyday stresses of grappling with an aging parent are made all the more difficult by competing for caregiving demands.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a child 18 or older. About 1 in 7 is financially supporting both an aging parent and a child.