When an aging parent begins dating or plans to remarry after the other parent passes away, it can be difficult for an adult child and it’s natural for the child to go on alert.
Learn more about how to understand your aging parent’s needs and what to do when they begin to date someone new.
After Ashlie Walton’s mother died from lung cancer in 2015, grief erased the zest for life that her dad, Michel, 65, had always possessed. His well-known sense of humor was gone and he seemed lost without his wife of 33 years. On top of processing her own grief, Walton carried the weight of witnessing her dad’s pain.
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“I felt like I was watching my dad die from a broken heart,” says Walton. She and her dad had always been close, sharing an almost telepathic connection with similar personalities and tastes and often finishing each other’s sentences. Even when Michel, a transplanted French-Canadian, mangled an American word occasionally, Walton understood.
“Hand me that tarantula,” Michel instructed her one day, years earlier, in the kitchen. She passed her dad the spatula without batting an eye. Then the pair burst out laughing. Now, however, 18 months after her mom’s death, Walton’s dad had grown reserved, sharing little of his life with his daughter.
Then one night at dinner, Michel casually mentioned to Walton that he’d recently purchased a duplex for his ex-wife, whom he’d been out of contact with for years. The long-divorced couple had renewed their relationship, he told her.
The news hit Walton hard. “I felt like my dad was sneaking behind my back,” she says.
When she expressed her concerns about the large purchase, Michel became defensive. “Dad said I was just trying to keep him away from her,” says Walton.
“But she could have been any other woman and I would have felt the same way. I was just trying to protect him.”
When a parent begins dating or plans to remarry after the other parent dies, it’s natural for the adult child to go on alert, says Mark Borg Jr., a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of “Irrelationship: How We Use Dysfunctional Relationships to Hide from Intimacy.”
“I’ve seen reactions ranging from relief in the children that they now will be less obligated to care for their parent to hurt that their lost parent is being replaced,” says Borg.
“It’s also common for children to worry that a parent’s new love might take advantage of or hurt that parent emotionally or financially.”
Adult children may also be concerned about how the new relationship could affect their inheritance, says Carolyn Miller Parr, a family mediator in Washington, D.C. and author of “Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family as Your Parents Age.”
“Children don’t trust the new person in their parent’s life, so they ascribe all kinds of assumptions, like ‘this person is after my parent’s money,’ or, ‘she’ll come between me and my dad and I’ll never see him again,’” says Miller Parr.
When Michel’s reignited relationship with his ex-wife fizzled after a few months, Walton was relieved. Yet her dad was now lonelier than ever, mired in deep depression. Michel had trouble sleeping and spoke poorly of himself. He started smoking cigars and rarely left his house.
“He got discouraged, thinking that since the relationship didn’t work out, he probably couldn’t find someone to share his life with again,” says Walton.
Eventually, Michel wore himself down, contracted pneumonia and spent a week in the hospital. “After that, he had an awakening,” says Walton. Michel kicked his cigar habit and went to therapy. She and her dad were close again, and he was healthier, but Michel’s loneliness persisted.
“The truth was, my dad needed a companion,” says Walton.
If your aging parent’s new love interest makes you nervous, circling the wagons with your siblings for an intervention probably won’t lead anywhere good. For one thing, you may be wrong.
“It’s unfair to make assumptions without getting to know the other person,” says Miller Parr. “For all you know, she might have more money than your father does.” Miller Parr, who became a widow herself after more than 60 years of marriage and remarried at age 79, recommends keeping an open mind and getting to know the new person over lunch or in some other neutral setting.
For the aging parent dating or planning to remarry, it helps to include your children in your new life to ease concerns. “To reassure our kids, we included them in many of our decisions, such as helping us find a new place to live, helping plan our wedding and participating in it,” says Miller Parr. “We created a prenuptial agreement and shared it with them, so they would understand that neither of us was after the other’s money.”
Adult children can also benefit from self-examination. Often, the child who doesn’t want to accept the loss of a deceased parent is actually afraid that he or she will replace the missing parent. “The fear is that they will allow their lost parent to lose significance, that they will, in some way, accept the parent’s new spouse and betray their lost parent,” says Borg.
Borg recommends focusing on ways that marriage and long-term love will benefit the parent’s emotional health and well-being. “The benefits of being accepted, cared for, loved and valued, are immeasurable,” says Borg. “Hold onto that insight and use it to help support the parent’s newfound love.”
More than three years after Walton’s mom died, her dad, now 68-years-old, took a chance on love again, reconnecting with an old friend he’d known in his early 20s but fell out of touch with while he was married. The new relationship has sparked her dad’s joy for life again, says Walton. Now Michel travels with his girlfriend frequently, hitting the road in her gargantuan RV. Once again, his life is an adventure.
“Of course, as a daughter, I want to protect my father and am worried about the ‘what if’ scenario,” says Walton. “However, the amount of recovery that I’ve seen in his emotional health over these past two months brings me comfort that he isn’t lonely anymore.
“Today, my dad is full of life and excited for each day. This spark in him is one that I haven’t seen since my mom got sick. I never expected that my dad would have a relationship, someone to experience life with again. Now I look at him and see that it brings him so much joy.”
Have you had an aging parent date someone new? What was your experience like? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.