His mother refused to use her walker, and Jacobs insisted that she do so for her own safety. â€œIf I want to fall, Iâ€™ll fall,â€ she said, scowling at him.
Jacobs told her that if she hurt herself, ended up in the emergency room and became incapacitated, it would affect his life as much as it would affect hers. â€œNot on my watch,â€ he told her.
Whatâ€™s a Helicopter Child?
Defiantly, Jacobsâ€™ mom branded him a â€œhelicopter son.â€
Helicopter children observe their parents aging â€” losing their memory, eyesight, financial prowess or driving skills â€” and proceed to take over their lives and become overly controlling.
According to Jacobs, offspring turn into helicopter children â€œout of a genuine concern that their parents are at some risk. Theyâ€™re concerned that their parents arenâ€™t using good judgment, putting themselves in harmâ€™s way or misusing their money or endangering themselves in some manner.â€
Grown children are walking a tightrope between avoiding overstepping their boundaries and getting involved to ensure that parents can function properly and make it through the day by paying bills and preparing meals.
In Jacobsâ€™ case, he eventually moved his mother near his residence and hired aides to prepare her meals and take care of her home. Ultimately, he moved her into a nursing home.
Step in Only When Necessary
Jacobs notes there are telltale signs suggesting the adult child must take more assertive action. When one client was on the phone with his mother in Florida, she told him that her lights werenâ€™t working. When the son investigated, he discovered that she hadnâ€™t paid her electric bill in five months. He took control of her finances, helping restore the power in her home.
Nonetheless, Jacobs recommends that concerned children â€œonly step in as much as you absolutely have to. You give parents the benefit of the doubt. All life entails some risk. You donâ€™t rob people of their dignity in the name of safety,â€ he said.
Helping parents solve problems is one thing, but helicopter children â€œoverstep their bounds and infringe on the parentsâ€™ right to make decisions for themselves. In doing so, they disempower the parent, taking on functions the parents should retain,â€ Jacobs noted.
Signs to Watch For
A variety of revealing signs can signal the beginning of dementia or weakening mental faculties, including misusing or not taking medications, repeated falls, visits to the emergency room or minor car accidents. Driving is a particular sensitive issue because â€œyouâ€™re talking about public safety,â€ Jacobs said.
Parents sometimes operate in denial, saying â€œthey just slippedâ€ without acknowledging their mobility is deteriorating, for instance.
Talk About Changing Expectations
When Nancy Schlossberg, a Sarasota, Fla.-based counseling psychologist and author ofÂ Too Young To Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age,Â was writing a book, she interviewed aging parents in low-income and higher-income communities, eliciting the same response: My children try to boss me.
â€œItâ€™s a control issue,â€ Schlossberg said.
After one woman in a retirement home had surgery and was recuperating, she said, her daughter hovered over her, scrutinizing her every move to ensure her mother was taking her pills. The mother felt claustrophobic and trapped.
Schlossberg recommends a discussion she terms an â€œexpectation exchangeâ€ that identifies what the parent and child want and expect from each other. But these issues are complex and multi-faceted, without any pat answers. And they differ from one parent to the next.
Meeting with a physician, therapist or attorney as a third-party is often a necessary way to resolve issues, Schlossberg explained.
Working in Collaboration
But children who take a hands-off approach and donâ€™t get involved arenâ€™t helping either. The key is getting involved, when necessary, without overtaking the parentsâ€™ autonomy.
Choose your battles carefully and donâ€™t sweat the small stuff, advises Frank Samson, CEO of Petaluma, Calif.-basedÂ Senior Care Authority,Â a franchise which provides senior care consulting. But children of aging parents must speak up â€œwhen their parentsâ€™ safety is at risk,â€ Â he said.Â If a parent needs a walker but resists, tell him or her why itâ€™s necessary to use it to avoid falling.
Samson reminds children of aging parents to always treat them with respect. Donâ€™t threaten, raise your voice or demand, but instead use a collaborative tone.
â€œParents want the child to help, without being demanding,â€ Samson noted.Â â€œPut yourself in their shoes.Â Guide them and let them know you care. Donâ€™t embarrass them.â€
4 Suggestions on When and How to Help
- Start establishing an ongoing dialogue about how your parents want to lead their life, setting boundaries on what theyâ€™re capable of and what they canâ€™t do. Solving matters entails creating a working partnership between child and parent.
- If issues become intractable, consider hiring a geriatric care manager who â€œbecomes the outside authority to analyze the situation and make recommendations,â€ Jacobs said. Often the care manager becomes the â€œbad guy,â€ relieving the child of that role.
- The earlier you can start the conversation with parents, the better, Samson said. Consider meeting with an elder care attorney to obtain power of attorney so you can avoid problems in the future.
- Unless the parent is severely impaired, children should take every step to let the parent function as independently as possible until actions definitively indicate that canâ€™t happen, Jacobs said. â€œA child should be sensitive to a parentâ€™s need for self-determination and maintaining self-identity,â€ he added.
Gary M. Stern is a New York-based freelance writerÂ who has written for theÂ New York Times, Wall Street Journal,Â, CNN/MoneyÂ and Reuters.Â Â He collaborated onÂ Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity into a Competitive EdgeÂ (Harper Collins), a how-to guide for minorities and women to climb the corporate ladder.