Parenting My Aging Father Has Made Me A Helicopter Parent

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daughter hugging elderly father

I had a phone call with my dad recently that ended with me having an unsettling epiphany. 

As usual, the conversation basically consisted of me firing off action items. “Dad, on Tuesday you have a blood draw at 10. Thursday, I lined up your ultrasound for noon so that we can do grocery shopping beforehand, sound good? Also, have you called in your prescription refill? If so, I can grab that later today and bring it over after I pick up the kids from school.”  

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After he answered my questions and acknowledged my requests, he said something that has stayed with me for weeks: “Honey. I appreciate all that you do, I really do. But, but I need you to get off my back a little bit.”

The epiphany that arose from his statement was this: I’ve unintentionally become a helicopter parent to my dad. 

Before I go further, here’s some background information. My dad and I have always gotten along famously. From early childhood to the present, I truly enjoy his company and view him as both a parent and a friend. When I officially became an adult and moved out of the house, I would visit him frequently and we would talk on the phone a few times a week.

We would talk about movies, books, and TV shows and would spend the whole conversation laughing uncontrollably. Our relationship has always been a load of fun and a barrel of laughs.

Then came 2020. We unexpectedly lost my mom. That heartbreaking event caused us to have to sell our long-time family home.

When it came time to figure out where my dad would live, the best option we found was a low-income independent senior living facility. He is living alone and is single.

This worries me because years ago he had a stroke that left him partially blind in one eye and with occasional short-term memory loss. We discussed the possibility of him moving in with us (me, my husband, and my two kiddos) after my mom’s passing, but he politely opted for his own space. 

I imagine it’s normal for people to worry about their aging parents, especially if they live alone.

My level of worrying is higher than average because of the unexpected loss of my mom. I will admit that I bug my dad about existing appointments, appointments he needs to schedule, preventative health measures, his diet, and his prescriptions on a regular basis.

On top of this, I bug him about his finances and his mental health. All I want is for him to be safe and healthy, but I can see how this looks like constant nagging to him. 

The truth is, it only took me a few minutes to decide that my dad’s statement is valid. I can afford to give him more breathing room.   

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To create a “getting off dad’s back” plan, I had to analyze my current approach.

A few thoughts regarding scheduling jumped out at me right away:

1. What things does dad want to do for himself, and can he safely do those things?

2. What things would he like to delegate to me, and how can I make time to do those things?

3. Does he like to knock out several chores in one day, or would he rather space them out?

His short-term memory loss affects his ability to do a lot of his scheduling, but I can help him be more independent by setting phone reminders for him to do things on certain days, and at certain times.  

Next, I took his personality and mental health into consideration.

Because of his aging, physical hindrances, and anxiety, his energy level changes almost daily.

I can schedule things as much as I want, but sometimes, he just doesn’t feel up to keeping plans. Some appointments really shouldn’t be canceled (like blood draws to make sure his levels are safe), but others can be rescheduled. I need to be more flexible about canceling things that aren’t necessary, even if it messes with my schedule.  

Changing the dynamic of our relationship was also important. Our conversations went from “Have you checked out this new show? It’s hilarious!” to “Have you checked your Warfarin? It’s getting low!” with my mom’s sudden passing.

I need to remind myself to not just call him for chores and appointments. I need to call him just to say “hey” and have the light-hearted, hilarious conversations that we used to have.

I need to be mindful of having phone calls and visits that had nothing to do with doctors and prescriptions.  

Next, I need to lean on the classic advice, “Put yourself in their shoes.”

Flash forward to me being 65. I suddenly need my adult children to help me with various chores. How would I want them to treat me? What would I want them to do (and not do!)? If they interacted with me the exact same way I’m interacting with my dad?

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Lastly, I think it will help to be mindful of our original roles. I think he feels like I have been parenting him rather than helping him.

Although he needs help with many things, I need to be careful about the way I interact with him. Rather than telling him what he needs to do, I can take a more cooperative approach by involving him in planning.

I also need to give him opportunities to “parent” me by being a dad to me and a grandpa to my two kiddos.

I can do this by asking for his advice on things and creating fun family events. By making these changes, he will probably feel more capable and less “bossed around.”  

Caring for an aging parent who lives alone is tough. Luckily, there are great resources out there for the journey.

The first step is making sure that your loved one is capable of safely living alone. My dad is safe so far, but there will come a day when he’ll have to either move in with us or live in a care facility. Right now, we feel good about it because he has an emergency pendant necklace that he wears. If he presses the button, people come to his apartment, and my sister and I get a phone call.  

The role reversal that comes with caring for an aging parent is a strange thing to get used to, but I'm happy to report I had a great visit with my Dad yesterday.

I was bringing him groceries (chore, I know), but we also sat and chatted about non-business and had a bunch of laughs.

When I left his apartment, we were both smiling. From now on, I just need to remember that my dad is not a patient of mine; he's my loving parent who simply needs a lot of help — and the way that I help going forward should be thoughtful and intentional.

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Stephanie McCoy's work focuses on motherhood, education, and other lifestyle topics.