Dealing with Our Parents as Elders: The Need for Control—Different Culture, Same Issue

I am in Japan this week, attending the “sankaiki” for my wife’s mother and brother. In Japan, one Buddhist funerary tradition is to remember the deaths of family members on certain anniversaries. This tradition occurs on fixed years, and the sankaiki is on the third anniversary. My wife’s mother and younger brother passed away in the same year, so we attended the rite at the local Buddhist temple for both at the same time.

My wife’s father will be 86 in December, and he is living alone in the same house where he has lived for 60 years. He lives in a small city about 60 miles north of Tokyo. In being at my wife’s side through the entire grieving and adjustment process, I have been witness to a common phenomenon I see among my financial planning clients with their parents. I am dealing with it myself with my own parents, ages 90 and 89. It is the challenge of adult children trying to understand and help their parents deal with elderhood and death. And it is the problem of us not understanding their profound need for control.

I don’t know how many arguments, tense words, tears, and sadness I have had to witness between my wife and her “stubborn father.” Most of the issues dealt with money, taking care of her mom’s affairs, housing, heirs, and estate planning. I felt helpless to intervene or to try to facilitate.

Communication Gap with our Elders

That is part of what motivated me to search out and read David Solie’s book, How to Say It to Seniors: Closing the Communication Gap with Our Elders. Solie, M.S., P.A., is an expert in geriatric psychology and intergenerational communication. He is also a managing director with one of the largest insurance companies in the U.S., Marsh & McLennan Companies.

He points out that as a culture, we have failed to recognize that personality development is a lifelong event. Unfortunately, for almost all of us, we think of deterioration rather than development when it comes to older adults. We have been duped into believing that “slowing down” is synonymous with diminished capacity. Says Solie: “It is one of the most misunderstood and destructive ideas we harbor about aging.”

For Solie, what looks like diminished capacity in most older adults is nothing more than an awareness that they are on a different developmental mission. Their “secret mission” is the resolution of the conflict between these two developmental imperatives:

  1. To maintain control over their lives in the face of almost daily losses
  2. To simultaneously discover their legacy, or that which will live on after them

He points out that in almost every conversation with an older adult, control and legacy issues rise to the surface. But we fail to recognize and understand them, and so we get into conflicts about control while convinced that we are only trying to help.

My Own Case Study—My Father

This happened to me recently while I was trying to “help” my father with a medical issue. When I play back the conversation he and I had on the phone, I remember clearly that he really did only ask me to “find out if this number they gave me is the right telephone for the outpatient surgery clinic where I need to schedule my follow-up surgeries. No one ever answers when I call.”

Well, I found out that the number my dad was calling was incorrect. So I called the right number. The nurse was very helpful, explained the process, and mentioned that they had just had a cancellation—my dad could get in as early as the following week for his first surgery. Normally, the wait time is 30 days or more.

I jumped at the offer and said we would take it. When I called my father back to give him the good news, he got angry at me for scheduling an appointment without consulting him!

Solie’s words strike at the heart of the matter. I thought I was helping, but my dad saw it as me trying once again to take away the one thing he will not surrender: the control he needs to manage his life and shape his legacy. I had to back off, hand him back the control baton, and let him call the clinic to schedule his own appointments. He still ended up taking the earlier date, but it was his decision.

The Link Between Control and Legacy

That was a huge lesson for me. I had to understand the line between being an advocate for my father’s health and trying to take charge of his health. Solie’s book solved the riddle for me for why I was always getting so much pushback every time I tried to “help” my dad solve a problem. I didn’t understand his need to maintain control.

The book also helped me understand why we had had almost no legacy discussions.

Why not? Because until the control issues are resolved, older adults have no time or energy to focus on their legacy imperative! Time wasted fighting unnecessary battles for control of their life deprive them of the chance they need to resolve how they want to be remembered.

So the next time you find yourself butting heads with your older parents, remember their need to maintain control. Honor that, and you will give them the opportunity to resolve their legacy challenge. You might even get included in the conversation!