When psychologist Barry Jacobs saw that his aging mother’s mental faculties were weakening and confronted her about it, the two of them began to argue. Despite being an expert on aging, Jacobs, a Springfield, Pa.-based clinical psychologist, author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping Aging Parents, fell into the same traps and disputations with his parent that others do.
His mother refused to use her walker, and Jacobs insisted that she do so for her own safety. “If I want to fall, I’ll fall,” 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. “Not on my watch,” he told her.
What’s a Helicopter Child?
Defiantly, Jacobs’ mom branded him a “helicopter son.”
Helicopter children observe their parents aging — losing their memory, eyesight, financial prowess or driving skills — and proceed to take over their lives and become overly controlling.
According to Jacobs, offspring turn into helicopter children “out of a genuine concern that their parents are at some risk. They’re concerned that their parents aren’t using good judgment, putting themselves in harm’s way or misusing their money or endangering themselves in some manner.”
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 Jacobs’ 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 weren’t working. When the son investigated, he discovered that she hadn’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 “only step in as much as you absolutely have to. You give parents the benefit of the doubt. All life entails some risk. You don’t rob people of their dignity in the name of safety,” he said.
Helping parents solve problems is one thing, but helicopter children “overstep their bounds and infringe on the parents’ right to make decisions for themselves. In doing so, they disempower the parent, taking on functions the parents should retain,” 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 “you’re talking about public safety,” Jacobs said.
Parents sometimes operate in denial, saying “they just slipped” without acknowledging their mobility is deteriorating, for instance.
Talk About Changing Expectations
When Nancy Schlossberg, a Sarasota, Fla.-based counseling psychologist and author of Too Young To Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age, 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.
“It’s a control issue,” 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 “expectation exchange” 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 don’t get involved aren’t helping either. The key is getting involved, when necessary, without overtaking the parents’ autonomy.
Choose your battles carefully and don’t sweat the small stuff, advises Frank Samson, CEO of Petaluma, Calif.-based Senior Care Authority, a franchise which provides senior care consulting. But children of aging parents must speak up “when their parents’ safety is at risk,” he said. If a parent needs a walker but resists, tell him or her why it’s necessary to use it to avoid falling.
Samson reminds children of aging parents to always treat them with respect. Don’t threaten, raise your voice or demand, but instead use a collaborative tone.
“Parents want the child to help, without being demanding,” Samson noted. “Put yourself in their shoes. Guide them and let them know you care. Don’t embarrass them.”
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 they’re capable of and what they can’t do. Solving matters entails creating a working partnership between child and parent.
- If issues become intractable, consider hiring a geriatric care manager who “becomes the outside authority to analyze the situation and make recommendations,” Jacobs said. Often the care manager becomes the “bad guy,” 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 can’t happen, Jacobs said. “A child should be sensitive to a parent’s need for self-determination and maintaining self-identity,” he added.
Gary M. Stern is a New York-based freelance writer who has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal,, CNN/Money and Reuters. He collaborated on Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity into a Competitive Edge (Harper Collins), a how-to guide for minorities and women to climb the corporate ladder.