A Father's

When the Father Becomes the Child

For older adults—especially older men—independence is the key to physical and mental health. Walking, for example, is something we’ve almost always taken for granted. It was one of our first big steps toward independence when were babies, and even as adults we rely on it for the ability to come and go as we please. In a lot of ways, the same can be said about driving. Losing either of those abilities—which can happen gradually as the result of normal aging, or suddenly after a stroke or other illness—can be a terrible blow.

If you’re getting lost a lot, driving too slowly, or have been in an accident recently, it’s time to consider handing over your car keys. And if you’re having trouble with basic tasks, such as walking, getting dressed, eating, paying bills, using the bathroom, and cooking, you’re going to need some help.

As a man, you may resent being dependent on others and embarrassed to have them see you that way. For that reason you’ll probably put off asking your children for assistance as long as possible. It’s hard enough to get used to being cared for by a wife, but it’s a lot worse to be cared for by a child—especially a son. When elderly parents require a lot of help from their children, they tend to be less satisfied with their relationships with those children, according to Anne-Marie Ambert. Part of the reason is that parents understand that their children are helping because the parents need it, not because they (the children) truly want to. Adult children can also be a little overzealous. In a recent study conducted by the AARP, 27 percent of elderly parents said they thought they’d need help from their adult children, but 54 percent of the children expected that their help would be needed. A third of adult children also suspected that their parents really needed help but weren’t asking for it. What this all adds up to is that, in their well-meaning attempts to assist, your children may underestimate your abilities and take over too much decision making, leaving you feeling weaker and more useless than before.

At this point in your life you’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about getting older, and about how aging will affect your level of independence. So have your adult children. In fact they may actually have thought about it more than you have. Sixty-nine percent of elderly parents think about getting older and how long they’ll be able to stay independent, while 75 percent of children think about their parents’ aging and possible need for help, according to the AARP.

Most of these families go beyond thinking and actually sit down with each other to talk about aging and independence. Interestingly, children are a little more likely to talk to their mothers than to their fathers, and parents are a little more likely to talk to their daughters than to their sons. A quarter of the children and nearly a third of the parents don’t discuss these important issues. That’s a big mistake; you’re getting older whether you think about it or not.

Of course, there’s no law that says that you have to turn to your kids for anything, but if you need something, ask for it. Programs like Meals on Wheels (www.projectmeal.org/) can help you on the food front if you’re having trouble getting out, and there are all sorts of push-button emergency radio-transmitter devices out there that you can use to call the paramedics if you need medical help. In addition, a lot of churches, synagogues, and social groups have volunteers who visit homebound people. If you do ask your children for help, expect to see your daughter or daughter-in-law more than your son. Daughters tend to do the bulk of the care giving, even when it’s their husband’s parents, perhaps because they’re less likely to be working full time. According to Ambert, sons are more likely to assist with transportation and money.

What happens if you’re no longer able to take care of yourself on your own? Unfortunately, most families deal with this question only in the midst of a crisis such as a fall or an unexpected illness, before they have a chance to fully investigate their options. Most children feel guilty about putting a parent in a rest home, and most parents find the idea terrifying. Moving in with one of your children, however, may not be geographically or financially practical, and the “we won’t put you in a home” promise may be a hard one to keep. So do yourselves a favor and start talking about all this stuff now. It may be difficult and even uncomfortable to broach the subject, but elderly parents and adult children alike say that these are critical discussions to have. They’ll give you both some peace of mind and help you come up with a plan that works for everyone.

©2007, Armin Brott

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It's clear that most American children suffer too much mother and too little father. - Gloria Steinem

A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the author of Blueprint for Men's Health: A guide to a health lifestyle, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be; The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner and Father for Life. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts “Positive Parenting”, a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at www.mrdad.com

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