Are Elderly Parents an Emotional Weight for Their Children?

Ezekiel Emanuel. Image from upenn.edu

Ezekiel Emanuel. Image from upenn.edu

I recently wrote about medical ethicist Ezekiel Emanuel’s Atlantic article explaining why he doesn’t want to live past age 75. I left off without having discussed one of his contentions, that living a long time can have a negative impact on children and grandchildren. In this post I plan to consider his reasons for thinking that.

Emanuel briefly mentions the financial and caregiving burdens that can ensue when elderly relatives are poor and disabled. These can indeed be huge, especially for family members who live at some distance or are poor themselves, whether the poverty is one of money, time, or energy. This isn’t Emanuel’s main focus, though. Here is his concern:

“Our living too long places real emotional weights on our progeny.”

The burden, for him, has as much to do with emotional baggage as it does with money or need for care. There are two main ways he thinks this is so. The first of these is that as long as they are alive elderly parents overshadow their offspring:

“Whether estranged, disengaged, or deeply loving, they set expectations, render judgments, impose their opinions, interfere, and are generally a looming presence for even adult children.”

Ezekiel, it is quite telling that you see parents that way. If the older adults in your family were judgmental and interfering, I can understand why the younger members prefer to be rid of them. One of the important things that therapists who work with families learn early on is that healthy families have good generational boundaries. Parents know enough to stay out of their children’s affairs unless invited in. If they do interfere, children know how to set limits on parental intrusions. My parents rarely offered advice, much less intruded into my life, once I reached my early 20s. I came to help my parents two years ago, when I semi-retired, staying in their home most of the time, and haven’t felt the weight of expectations, judgments, or interference at all. The emotional weight Emanuel is talking about here is very much limited to a particular sort of family.

Here’s the second way according to Emanuel that long-living adults are an emotional weight for their children: we won’t be remembered well by them. Here’s how he puts the point:

“We wish our children to remember us in our prime. Active, vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, loving. Not stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive, constantly asking ‘What did she say?’…. [L]eaving them—and our grandchildren—with memories framed not by our vivacity but by our frailty is the ultimate tragedy.”

Parents are sometimes a source of tragedy for their children—take physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect, for example. A parent dying or deserting the family when children are young can be tragic. But neglecting to exit before becoming frail? That’s no tragedy, much less the ultimate tragedy.

It is difficult to see our parents getting old. During the last two years of dad’s life, his dementia worsened and he became more and more dependent on assistance. I bathed him, dressed him, and helped him walk. Was any of this pleasant? No. But it was an honor to care for one of the best men I have ever known, who provided much more assistance for me through the years than I ever did for him.

Are children harmed by memories of their parents as frail? This seldom seems to be mentioned a problem by grieving offspring. Isn’t never seeing our parents’ frailties more detrimental than having a good dose of their decline? We don’t understand aging and death if we don’t have firsthand experience with it. Not only the passing of a parent but the decline that proceeded it teaches us about our own finitude and mortality.

A few days after my dad died, a friend who has lost both her parents wrote in an email that “after a few years, you find your memory is freed of the image of the loved one in the process of dying. That is, you will begin to remember your father less as the ill and dying man he was at the end and more as he was throughout your life.” I’m already seeing the truth of that comment. No, it wasn’t a tragedy to see my dad’s frailty, and that won’t be the main memory that I carry forward. Memory restores to us what was lost for a time—the whole person our dad or mom was to us, from the first few splatters of early recollection, through a torrent of remembered words and actions, swelling to a stream of remembered moments in which we can be immersed for hours. What a blessing.

 

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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