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Helicopter Parents, Helicopter Kids

The term “helicopter parents” was invented to describe my generation.

After growing up between the Vietnam War and the Rodney King riots, when pictures of missing children first were slapped on milk cartons and cable news delivered a 24/7 world of crime and terror, some baby boomers overscheduled and micromanaged their children and harshly judged other parents who did not. Most of those children grew up just fine in spite of parental mistakes, but this only reinforced the idea that maybe helicoptering was the way to go.

And so, with their offspring grown and out of the nest, helicopter parents have turned their attentions on their aging parents. They have turned into helicopter kids, as a recent article in The Wall Street Journal pointed out.

I do not place myself in this category. My wife and I have accumulated a lot of experience with aging relatives, and my work with clients and their families has also given me a broader perspective. I believe in using the lightest touch that gets the job done.

My own mother is 91, but she is so energetic that I tease her about being a party animal. Last fall she danced at her granddaughter’s wedding; last week she attended my firm’s 25th anniversary celebration in Florida. There was a party for employees and families on a yacht on Friday night, followed by a dinner and concert at a hotel on Saturday. On Sunday morning, we left at 6:30 a.m. so she could check in to fly – unaccompanied – from Fort Lauderdale to Newark, New Jersey. A car service we regularly use picked her up at the airport and brought her back to the condo that she bought with my father 28 years ago. She has lived there alone since he died more than seven years ago, but she is not isolated.

On weekday mornings a shuttle bus takes Mom to the local senior citizens center, where she plays cards and eats lunch with her friends. Three nights each week, a younger friend picks her up around 5 p.m. to go to a local church bingo until about 10 o’clock. I call her on the other four nights to ask how much money she scored and to catch up on whatever else is happening. A niece with whom she is very close calls her every morning and evening, and my brother stays in touch regularly as well.

Mom has a necklace monitor to wear when she is in the house in case she suffers a fall. I am not worried about what happens when she is out, since she is always around other people. During the baseball season she watches most night games of her beloved New York Yankees, and she is not shy about sharing her opinions about how the pitching staff is being managed. The hardest time of year is the baseball off-season, when she fills her spare time watching an endless stream of crime drama reruns.

She pays her own bills and balances her own checkbook. I know she stays on top of her finances because if someone fails to promptly deposit a gift check she wrote, she always notices and follows up. She likes to fill down time doing word puzzles, which helps keep her mind sharp. I ask her to keep me informed about her doctor visits and prescriptions, and my brother (who is retired and lives closer to her than I do) often accompanies her to appointments.

Obviously my mother is in unusually good shape for her age. Not everyone is so fortunate, and a lot of it is just luck. But not all of it. Staying mentally and physically active, being part of a development where she socializes with people of all ages, and being treated as a competent adult who can make her own decisions contribute to her longevity and add immeasurably to her quality of life.

Because I know this from my own experience, I did not hesitate to question a client who recently told me that his healthy, active, 80-year-old mother was strongly considering leaving her Florida home, where she has a busy social life, to move to an assisted living facility in Washington state to be closer to her son. She did not currently need any living assistance, and she did not really want to leave her social group in Florida. She and her relatives were just nervous about what would happen if she needed help with all her family so far away.

I told my client that I thought the move might be premature, and also that they might be putting too much faith in the “assisted” part of assisted living.

These modern old-age homes usually offer a range of services, including housing, cleaning, cooking and increasing levels of nursing aid. They can often be the best option for people suffering from dementia or with an otherwise severely compromised capacity for independent living. But for most residents of most homes, these facilities do very little to alleviate one of the major threats to an elderly person – falling and suffering a debilitating injury. A staff person is likely to find the fallen resident and arrange help at some point, but by then most of the damage is already done.

A reasonably capable older person can handle many of the activities of daily living in his or her own home, either alone or with part-time domestic help, usually at much lower cost. I don’t see why a physically and socially active, healthy older adult should necessarily move into an elder care facility, except arguably for social opportunities. Whether at home or in an institution, the only way to really reduce the risk of falls is to have personal aides – ideally around the clock, since falls are most apt to happen late at night when the older individual gets up to go to the bathroom or kitchen, or first thing in the morning when getting out of bed.

We needed private aides for my wife’s parents and an aunt when they got into their final years; all lived into their 90s. But we had those aides mostly at home, and it worked very well after some trial and error. It can be hard to find good private help, and bad help can be worse than no help at all. Finances, naturally, are a factor as well. It can easily cost more than $100,000 per year to pay for round-the-clock private nursing aides, and there are significant paperwork requirements if you don’t use an agency. Just keep in mind that nursing homes and assisted living do not provide the same level of personal help, especially help in navigating without falls, unless you supplement them with private aides. Medicaid will pay for in-home services just as it does for institutional care once most assets are depleted, but services and requirements vary by state.

It helps to understand how life changes for an aging person. As physical abilities decline, the world tends to shrink. You can go from being a fully mobile and independent driver, to someone who is only comfortable walking around the neighborhood, to someone largely confined to home except for medical appointments, and finally to someone spending all day every day in just one or two rooms.

Along with this shrinking physical world comes a diminishing social circle. The people close to you die or move away to be with younger family. The people who are left don’t share as many of your memories and experiences.

My parents met at a Halloween party when my father was on shore leave from the Navy during World War II. Now, most of the people my mother sees at the senior citizens center are not old enough to remember World War II. They did not listen to the same music, dance the same dances, read the same magazines or raise their children in the same era that she did. My mother has lost something that someone my age might not even realize that she ever had.

Someone once said there is no such thing as calling your mother too often. The line stuck with me, so I call her on most of those non-bingo nights, and sometimes during the window between when she comes home from bingo and when she goes to bed after the 11 o’clock news. I don’t always have much to say, and when I don’t, I don’t say much. I just listen to her report on the bingo results and get her update on the Yankees starting rotation. If she needs me for anything else, I’ll usually find out in the process.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

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