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Do adult children worry too much about elderly parents?

By Dr. Gary Blanchard

Q: I am in my late 70s and my daughter is terrific about taking care of me and her father, who is in his early 80s and not in the best of health. I love my daughter, but sometimes we feel more like her children than her parents. I know she is concerned about us and just wants to make sure we are OK, but shouldn’t we be allowed to keep some things to ourselves?

If we go out to the store or the movies she worries if we do not tell her we are going out. I do not want her to worry so much and want her to know we are grown adults and are OK. Please let me know if her behavior is normal or am I being too sensitive. I just don’t want her to worry so much.

Overly Protected in Leominster

A: Dear Overly Protected, to be a geriatrician is to bear witness to the circle of life in many ways. To wit:

As a former aspiring pediatrician for 20 years (with the mothballed Cookie Monster ties as incontrovertible evidence), I was emphatically taught — by any means necessary, if necessary — to extricate the parent from the examination room during a healthy adolescent visit. No matter how well-meaning or perfectly loving the mother or father, the whole tenor of a teenager’s visit to the pediatrician transforms when done as a one-on-one conversation — without a parent’s occasional interjections.

Now, as a perfectly content geriatrician, I frequently go to great lengths to remove that adolescent — usually now in their 50s or 60s, sometimes even appropriate for a geriatrics practice — from my examination room during a visit with an older patient, the very same parent who I was instructed to kick out of the room during medical school.

A one-on-one visit between physician and older patient is also a wholly different animal — as, unsurprisingly, intuitively, a parent will frequently have a filter in place when their child is within earshot.

Your feelings are incredibly common and, I’d emphasize, normal and healthy. I hear a chorus of those exact feelings expressed to me on an almost daily basis: a parent — sometimes limited by mild cognitive and/or functional issues, sometimes not; sometimes a bit frail, sometimes not — feels constrained and smothered by an obviously loving child who wants nothing more than to advocate for their parent’s health. It is rare that the parent/patient doesn’t preface their remarks without emphasizing how much they love their child.

That said, it can be incredibly difficult to bear when a parent — especially those whose lives were marked by a spirit of independence and self-determination — begins to feel like their son or daughter is upending an obviously lifelong parent-child relationship. I find this role reversal only heightens the frustration some older adults feel as they already try to compensate for even a perceived slight cognitive, physical or functional decline.

In my estimation and experience, you really need to talk with your daughter to let her know how you are feeling, harping on how much you appreciate all her obvious love, sympathy and concern for you, but, at the same time, let her know that it can be a bit overbearing at times for you. That sentiment can be difficult to hear — and almost always catches a son or daughter off guard. But it sounds like your feelings need to be discussed. I just wouldn’t want to see the feelings you’ve internalized affect what sounds like a very loving mother-daughter relationship if they aren’t brought to light.

Dr. Gary Blanchard is a geriatrician at Saint Vincent Hospital as part of the Saint Vincent Medical Group. He is accepting new patients and can be reached at 508-363-5630.

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