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Ohio State University Extension


Enhancing the Adult Child/Parent Partnership

Family and Consumer Sciences
Susan Holladay, Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension

Adult children, partnering with aging parents, provides an opportunity to work together to better understand and accept the changes that occur throughout the aging process. In today’s society much has changed yet much has stayed the same. Families are still the primary caretakers of their aging family members. According to Hugh Delehanty, co-author of Caring for Your Parents: The Complete AARP Guide, family members are responsible for 80 percent of the elder care being done in the United States. This means that nearly every generation is able to interact and learn from someone personally affected by the aging process. 

As parents age, adult children find themselves in the role of helping their aging parents make decisions. Some of these decisions may involve a change in the parent’s living arrangements, daily activities, personal and health care, and financial resources. Adult children become involved in the decision-making process by providing information, advising, investigating options, networking, locating available resources, and assessing how well these resources benefit the individual.

Crisis or opportunity? As parents age, their needs become greater and increased demand is placed on the time and financial resources of their caregivers. Adult children are frequently called upon to take on the role of caregiver, a role some parents may not be ready to relinquish. The shifting of caregiving roles is a complex process. Problems arise when difficult decisions need to be made that impact the parent’s sense of independence and sense of control. To ease the transition into caregiver, it is helpful for the adult child to take note of two strategies—empathy and communication—that may help smooth the way. Consider these points:

  • Be sensitive to the physical, emotional, and cognitive changes facing your parent. These are generally changes out of their control. As long as they are capable, help them gain a sense of control by including them in all decisions that involve them.
  • There will always be differences of opinion. The ability to work through a situation by respectfully listening and reflecting on the other’s point of view is essential. Disagreements could come up between caregivers and medical staff, parent and caregiver, caregiver and siblings, or any time two people are involved in making a decision. In some cases it may be best to “agree to disagree” or involve an objective third party. Respect differences. 
  • Adult children have a great deal of influence with their parents but not authority over them. The child’s role is to present information, to assist in looking at the options, and to think through the consequences of those decisions.
  • It is natural for adult children to want what is best for their parents. At the same time, it is important to guard against telling them what to do. The most effective role to take in these situations is that of guide.
  • Understand the current developmental stage of the parent. Their two main goals involve maintaining their independence and identifying and clarifying the legacy they will leave behind. 
  • Be patient when their communication emphasizes health concerns. Aging parents spend much of their energy discussing health issues that are not only their own but also of family and friends. It is a productive process. By doing this, they are talking through and learning to accept their own changes in mobility and independence.
  • Listen carefully. If while listening to a parent, they seem to go in an unrelated direction, pay close attention. It may be that the irrelevant point they were making is leading to a concern of which you weren’t aware.

Adult children need to keep in mind that there are limits to what they can do. As long as a parent is mentally and emotionally capable of making decisions, it is wise that they do. 

In a version of the Serenity prayer, caregivers “must have courage to move into places where we can do some good, accept situations over which we have no control, and be empowered with the wisdom to know the difference” (Solie, 2004). The stage of development helps direct us to know that difference. 

With the high percentage of elder care provided by families, helpful resources have become easily accessible. Numerous websites are available that provide support, information, and updates on valuable resources. A sampling of the websites is listed here:

AARP’s Navigating the World of Caregiving

Family Caregiver’s Alliance

Eldercare Locator

National Council on Aging’s Benefits Check-Up

National Family Caregiver Association’s Family Caregiving 101

National Respite Locator


Berman, C. (2001). Caring for yourself while caring for your aging parents. New York: Henry Hold & Company, LLC.

Delehanty, H., & Ginzler, E. (2008). Caring for your parents: The complete AARP guide. New York: Sterling Publishing.

Henry, S. M., & Convery, A. (2006). The eldercare handbook: Difficult choices, compassionate solutions. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Solie, D. (2004). How to say it to seniors: Closing the communication gap with our elders. New York: Prentice Hall Press.

Reviewed by Jill Eversole Nolan, Ohio State University Extension, Faculty Emeritus.

Originally posted May 5, 2011.