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Aging Parents and Their “Helicopter Children”

Kimberley Fowler
By Kimberley FowlerJune 26, 2018

Most of us are familiar with “helicopter parents” – the generation of overprotective dads and moms who incessantly hover like helicopters around their children – but recently, the roles have reversed. “Helicopter children” represent a new wave of overprotective caregivers who try to mitigate their aging parents’ every move; albeit with the best of intentions.

Whether you are the elderly parent receiving care or the adult child providing it, the transition of caregiving is often difficult for everyone involved. To make this difficult transition easier, Forbes suggests removing the barriers of communication as much as possible and to “think of this relationship as a partnership, not as one family member providing a service to another.”

The “Helicopter” Movement

According to Parents Magazine, the metaphor “helicopter parent” was first used in Dr. Haim Ginott’s 1969 book “Between Parent & Teenager” by “teens who said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter.”

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The term took off in the 1990s to describe parents of millennial children who embraced an excessive parenting style that included “over-controlling, over-protecting and over-perfecting” their children.

Helicopter behavior hasn’t only been observed in parents of young children, not yet old enough to advocate for themselves. United States College administrators began using the term in the early 2000’s to describe baby boomer-aged parents who “earned notoriety for practices such as calling their children each morning to wake them up for class and complaining to their professors about grades the children had received.”

As baby boomers (and their children) continue to age, it has become a natural transition for them to focus their sites on their own aging parents.

Helicopter Children: The Right Approach to Caring for Aging Parents

Forbes points out that the language used across the internet and in self-help books negatively impacts the ways in which we view aging seniors and in turn, the way we care for them. Phrases such as “parenting your parents” or “you have become your parents and they have become your children” only serves to create a divide between parents and their adult children and ultimately corrodes communication.

Instead, Forbes suggests to always remember that although your parents need assistance and support as they age, they have not become your children… they will never be your children and “to treat them as if they are is to dishonor and disrespect your aging parents.”

To avoid becoming a helicopter child, it is important to keep your parents’ well-being at the heart of every issue, rather than your need to ease your own worries.

Clinical psychologist Laura Carstensen, who is also founding director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, suggests this basic rule for adult children to adopt when caring for their aging parent: “unless a parent is cognitively impaired and not aware of the level of his or her impairment, children need to respect the parent’s decisions.”

The Wall Street Journal suggests that adult children consider the following approach to avoid entering the helicopter zone:

  1. Consider assistive devices. If your parents forget to turn off the stove, don’t jump to the conclusion they can’t stay in their home. Look into devices that turn stoves off automatically.
  2. Consult a professional if you’re worried about risky behavior. If a parent has cataracts in both eyes and continues to drive at night, ask the primary-care physician to intervene.
  3. Consult, don’t command. Use classic ‘I’ language, such as: ‘I am concerned about you living in a two-story house after your heart attack.’ Avoid: ‘You can’t live here anymore.’
  4. Establish competence. If you and your parents don’t agree on their level of competence, consult a professional together.
  5. Pick your battles. If a parent is getting lost or has stopped bathing, talk about what help he or she might need to remain independent. If his or her clothes don’t match, get over it.
  6. Respect their privacy. Don’t go through your parents’ mail or screen their calls unless asked.
  7. Respect their rights. Your parents have the right to take informed risks. Unless your father or mother has dementia, don’t make decisions for him or her.

What struggles do you face when caring for an aging parent or older loved one? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Kimberley Fowler
Kimberley Fowler
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