The Humanist Dilemma: How Close by Does One Need to Stay to an Elderly Parent?

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Helicopter Children: I’m in my late fifties and many of my friends’ parents are in failing health. They’re often afraid to do anything, whether it’s to take a vacation, accept a better job that would involve a lot of travel, or even make plans for weddings or shows because their parents might suddenly need them. Both of my parents are already gone, but my siblings and I shared caring for them. We were unhappy that they lived a few hours drive from any of us and refused to move closer, but we still managed to lead our lives and, I believe, take care of them pretty well.

I’ve had friends who wouldn’t go anywhere for years before their parents finally died. I’m tempted to advise my friends who are now hovering to just live their lives and be ready to drop things for their parents if necessary, rather than to put things off for what could be as much as a decade. But maybe that’s bad advice.

—Dutiful or Overdoing It?


Dear Dutiful,

Unless your friends are asking what you think they should do, it’s better if you refrain from offering unsolicited advice. Instead, be there to listen empathetically, acknowledging their concerns and their desire to be good to their elderly parents. You can bring up examples of how you and your siblings handled your parents’ situation if you think that might be helpful. But bear in mind that each situation is unique. Everyone has their own relationship with their parents and their own sense of duty and devotion, and every parent is different in what they ask or expect from their children.

If your friends seem to be struggling, you might suggest they seek professional counseling or join a caregiver support group. Some families are deeply entwined with each other, while others are more distant. Some children feel compelled (positively or negatively) to be caregivers. Many elderly people become very demanding and often unreasonable as they lose their independence, and adult children may have difficult decisions to make. As long as they aren’t chafing under the burden or letting other critical aspects of their lives suffer, they are probably doing what they want or need to do. And they may be helping both their parents and themselves through this difficult passage by giving up a few vacations or other activities in exchange for something that feels more valuable to them.

If you’re troubled because friends are reluctant to make plans with you because their parents might need them, assure them it’s no problem if they have to cancel. Don’t make them feel guilty if they’d rather not set up dates with you, or for backing out at the last minute. Or just check in with a brief phone call now and then. On the other hand, some of these friends might need a gentle push to do some things for themselves once in a while, so go ahead and suggest activities that would not be big commitments of time or distance from their folks (like a nice brunch or a visit to a day spa for some pampering). Be a good friend to them now—even if that means being less close as long as necessary—so you can be good friends again when they’re ready.