Most of us come into the world viewing our parents as healthy, strong and everlasting. As we grow, and as they age, the naive feeling that they are a perpetual part of our lives fades. Their hearing weakens, their gait slows, their memories dim, and for adult children the experience can provoke feelings of anger, anxiety, fear and frustration.
"Many people struggle as they witness 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, experts say, 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 that suggests aging should be fought or hidden.
Hair dye and wrinkle cream are embraced while hearing aids and walkers are shunned.
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 normal stresses of grappling with an aging parent are made all the more difficult by competing caregiving demands.
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, according to the Pew Research Center. About 1 in 7 is financially supporting both an aging parent and a child.
Among all adults with at least one parent age 65 or older, 30% say their parents need some help caring for themselves. The same figure holds true for emotional support.
These adults are part of what experts call the "sandwich generation," those who are simultaneously caring for their own children as well as for aging parents. The relentless financial and emotional stress of both can take a toll and lead to what Castel calls "caregiver stress," especially when the aging parent doesn't want the care.
That feeling you can't name?:It's called emotional exhaustion.
"There's so much frustration in wanting to respect a parent, but also help," he said.
Communicate, pick battles and seek support
When a parent's health is deteriorating, good communication can make the transition easier.
"It's thinking about how to communicate things effectively without being condescending," Castel said. "Sometimes it's saying, 'I love you and I'm doing this because it can make your life better in some ways. I know it doesn't feel comfortable.'"
Castel suggests asking older parents questions such as, "Do you like it when I do this?" or "Do you know why I'm doing this?"
An older parent may say, "I hate it when you keep telling me to wear a hearing aid." But the child can reply with, "Well, I feel like I have to repeat things or you sometimes miss things. I'm happy to repeat things if it's important, but it causes me some frustration."
Children need to pick their battles. If a parent's hearing is decreasing, but they can still participate in a conversation, maybe don't push the hearing aid. If memory is declining, but no one is getting lost coming home, continuing to observe may be a good strategy.
Children can be clear with their parents that they may not be able to do as many things as they used to do, while also assuring their parents they will do their best to help them participate in activities most meaningful to them.
Children can also help navigate the transition by seeking out support, whether from siblings or from caregiver support groups.
'Accepting aging and mortality can be liberating'
Aging is normal, even if our culture suggests otherwise. Experts say it's important for people to accept the process, and to acknowledge there are things that get better with age. Older people may be more emotionally intelligent, more judicious, and more deliberate in ways that serve them well.
"The reality is that virtually all people will encounter physical problems as they age," Carstensen said. "The issue is less about avoiding the inevitable and more about living satisfying lives with limitations. Accepting aging and mortality can be liberating."
Acceptance can be the goal, though watching a parent age can be challenging not only because of what's happening to the parent but also because of what the child knows will happen to them, too.
"It scares us," Castel said. "We think, 'That could be me one day. And in fact, if everything goes well, that will be me one day.' One thing to say to yourself is, 'How do I want my child to treat me?'"