Have you heard of helicopter parents?
You know the sort of behaviour. It’s parents who can’t stop organising their offspring’s lives right through childhood and teenage years and who keep swooping in to solve problems even after those children become adults. Extreme cases even interfere with job interviews.
Helicopter parents find it hard to let their children take risks, make their own mistakes and live their own lives.
And that’s exactly what helicopter children do with elderly parents. Helicopter children want to organise everything in their parent’s life, swoop in to solve every problem and ease every difficulty. They find it hard to let parents take risks, make their own mistakes and live their own lives.
To the rescue
Now when people are in serious trouble or distress, rescue services are vital. I’m not talking about elderly parents with very high care needs such as dementia. What helicopter children do is to launch rescues when it isn’t essential.
And just as helicopter parents who do everything for their children stop those children learning self-reliance, helicopter children prevent parents from living full lives.
So how can you tell if you’ve got helicopter child syndrome?
This is where I offer a neat list of 5 symptoms. Except it’s not that simple. That’s why I’m working on a longer piece which I’ll be sharing with my newsletter subscribers. But here are three things I used to say too often when I was in rescue mode. Perhaps you’ve said them too:
“You can’t do that, it’s not safe”
When a parent becomes unsteady or forgetful, we become as alert as the parent of a toddler to all the dangers that lurk in daily living, and try to eliminate risk. But sometimes risk is what gives life purpose.
My mum lived in a care home after a major stroke, but loved her daily walk around the local streets with her walking frame. Occasionally she’d get lost, or tire herself out. Sometimes, kind strangers brought her home. We all worried about the risks, especially when she crossed busy roads. But to her, being tucked up safe in a high-back chair all day was a kind of death, while those independent outings gave her joy. We discussed safe routes, and stood back.
“Let me do that”
With all the pressures of work and family life, it’s hard to find time for visits to parents. When we get there to take them out, or have a chat over a cup of tea, it drives us up the wall if they’re slow at everything. So we finish their sentences, or jump in with: “You sit there, Mum, I’ll make the tea”.
Yet letting an elderly parent look after us – if they’d like to – is important. It’s a gift they enjoy offering, even if it takes more time and energy than it used to. A gift we can offer them is to be completely present with them in the here and now. Mindfulness is helpful here. We consciously still our thoughts and focus on the person in front of us, the “now” of this shared moment, this conversation – even if we’ve had it before.
We want our elderly parents to be happy. It’s tough to see someone we love miserable, frustrated, or powerless, and even more difficult when this person has been such a powerful figure in our lives. Helicopter children try to solve parental unhappiness or loneliness by over-organising visits and activities and being relentlessly positive.
But not all unhappiness in old age can be fixed. Much loneliness stems from loss of partners, friends and old ways of life. Yes, we can offer practical help and encouragement, but our chief response might be simply to allow the tears, acknowledging that we can’t fix everything for those we love.
Being a helicopter child is one way of coping with our own identity as our parents age, become frail, and die. I wish now I’d let go of that role earlier. Because once I stopped trying to solve everything for my parents and left them space to live as they wanted, our relationship became much richer.