Aging Parents, Adult Children – Learn to Make Life Decisions Together

By Valerie
April 8, 2010

It’s hard for me to get used to these changing times. I can remember when the air was clean and sex was dirty.” – George Burns

A grandson is excitedly showing his grandfather his new phone and says, “These phones are so cool Grampy; they don’t have any buttons.” The grandfather reminisces and tells his grandson, “I remember when phones were amazing because they had buttons.” The grandson looks at him quizzically. “You know instead of a dial,” explains the grandfather. The grandson looks at him with a look of awe, “What’s a dial Grampy?”

Initially used in the 1960s, the term Generation Gap described differences in political opinions, taste in music and fashion, and lifestyle choices between Baby Boomers and their parents. Over forty years later, Boomers and Sandwich Generationers are re-experiencing a generation gap with their aging parents, as it relates to their future care giving and health care needs.

Just as I shake my head in disbelief as I witness teenagers throwing mounds of trash in the park when a garbage can sits a mere five feet away, many Baby Boomers can be found exasperated and frustrated by some of their parents’ financial, health, housing and lifestyle choices. Understanding the difference in values, beliefs and opinions of the various generations allows acceptance to come more readily, and reduces conflict and strained communication between generations.

As parents are living longer, adult children are faced with increased responsibility and care giving. What makes the situation unique for Boomers and their parents is that adult children have no idea what it’s like to be old, and yet they are often thrust, sometimes overnight, into a role of providing care for an aging loved one.

When families have to plan for care or are resolving a health crisis, sometimes conversations between parents and children are strained, explosive or one-sided.

Understanding Values and Beliefs

Each generation brings certain values to the table, along with key characteristics. Keep in mind that, in general, parents who lived during the World Wars and the Depression are shaped by survival and hardship. Most seniors in this cohort are conservative and traditional, and the world is black and white.

On many fronts, they believe in commitment, dedication, duty and sacrifices. Many were heavily influenced by their family and religious beliefs. From a health care perspective, their physicians were the local authority and taken very seriously. Most seniors look to the public system to meet their health needs and usually resist paying for private services.

Boomers on the other hand, can be stereotypically viewed as valuing self-fulfillment in work, family and leisure activities. They grew up in a strong and prosperous economy, and experienced major revolutions such as the Cold War and Vietnam, as well as the Civil Rights and Feminism movements. As a result, Boomers often feel a sense of entitlement and are more likely to challenge authority.

Closing the Generation Gap

As if the above differences weren’t enough to pose challenges in communication, aging loved ones are often struggling to come to grips with staggering losses – chronic illness or dementia, reduced mobility, dwindling peer group as siblings and friends die, a change in work or family role and sometimes the loss of a family home.

Generally, the elderly find it more difficult to cope with loss, simply because these loses can’t be regained or replaced. Acutely aware of their limitations, our aging loved ones do their best from slipping off the rope by tying a knot and hanging on to what they have: independence and control.

At the same time, many aging loved ones are looking backwards, trying to make sense and meaning of their lives, and what future generations will remember them by.

A dichotomy of sorts, our aging loved ones are trying to remain in control and letting go at the same time. Appreciate this complex and challenging transition your aging loved one is facing. The next time you visit with your parents, take a moment and check in with your language and attitude at the door.

Learn about the Generations

Maureen Osis, Judy Worrell and Dianne McDermid, authors of Your Aging Parents: How to Prepare, How to Cope encourage families to engage in dialogue with parents about values and beliefs. They encourage children to talk to their older parent or grandparent about one belief or value. You can ask:

Osis, Worrell and McDermid also suggest other ideas on learning about different generations by asking:

Be prepared to knock at your parents’ door a dew times. Closing the Generation Gap starts one conversation at a time. Be mindful that opening a dialogue may go smoothly, or be awkward depending on:


Check your attitude at the door. Don’t barge in, but rather let your parents open the door. Honor your again loved one’s wisdom and insights, and enjoy a more purposeful connection and meaningful relationship.

If you are interested in ordering the book Your Aging Parents: How to Prepare, How to Cope, you can find it through ElderWise (Toll free 1-877-237-5743) or Self Connection Bookstore (online).

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“You are amazing! What I tried to do in 2 months, you did in 1 week. You’ve helped us navigate the system, made sense of Mom’s disease, and gave back her independence and control. Thank you for making such a difference in Mom’s life and giving us, her family, complete peace of mind.”

– Mike G., Nanaimo, BC