Are You a ‘Helicopter Caregiver’? Learn How to Give Your Loved One the Space and Independence They Need

Q. With the recent loss of my father, my mother is now living alone about an hour away from me and my family. When dad died late last year, I grew increasingly worried about her and how she would handle things on her own. She depended on my dad for everything!

My first instinct was to move her to some type of retirement living community. This way, I felt there would be some immediate support if she needed it. But my mother continues to insist on living by herself in her own home. She loves her house, her neighbors, and her community. She claims that she feels supported and comfortable where she is.

I’m glad she feels this way, but when I was over there recently for Mother’s Day, I realized that although she denies it, she really does need help and should not be by herself. I explained this to my own family and decided to stay with my mom for a month to see what she needs and how I can help her.

About two weeks into my stay, when my mother thought I was still sleeping, I overheard her chatting to a friend on the phone. She was saying that she misses her freedom and privacy and that I’ve been overbearing, and she wishes I would go home. I was so hurt and upset about what I heard. I called my best friend to discuss it and told her some of the things I was doing to help and she said I was perhaps being a “helicopter caregiver.” I’ve heard of helicopter parent, but never helicopter caregiver. Can you explain what this is? Also, how can I be there to help my mom without invading her space, as she claims I am doing? Thanks for your help!

A. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your father. Similar to most adult children, you likely care deeply for your mother and want her to be happy and safe. Sometimes, however, wanting what’s best can make a senior loved one feel like a child and like they are losing their independence, which is never a good feeling.

As you care for your aging parents, or as your children start providing care for you, many caregivers have a low tolerance for any type of risk that is associated with age.

In an article recently published in Time Magazine titled, “What I Learned From Spending Almost 2 Months of the Pandemic Living With My Elderly Parents,” Belinda Luscombe shares her story. She spoke of how she had to declutter their home, schedule their health care appointments, fix their technology, plus do so many other things for them to eliminate any type of health or physical risk to them.

Her parents seemed happy and content with the way things had been before she came. All they really wanted to do was sit down and talk with her. They wanted to spend time doing a puzzle and possibly having an occasional drink together. But Belinda was so intent on getting things organized and safe for her parents that she seemed to completely miss out on this opportunity.

What Is a “Helicopter Parent?”

We have all heard about helicopter parents, a style of parenting that can occur from early childhood through high school and beyond. Helicopter parenting stems from a pessimistic attitude toward your children that says they cannot do anything safely or successfully without your help,

Helicopter parents of toddlers may:

  • Hover excessively over their toddlers as they engage in age-appropriate play, perhaps even continuously directing the type of play.
  • Not let their toddler solve their own problems.
  • Catch their toddlers every time they fall while learning to walk.

Helicopter parents of teenagers may:

  • Hover around their teenagers, being present to take care of all their obstacles.
  • Check their teenager’s grades online obsessively and try to intervene by talking to a teacher to change a bad grade.
  • Try to switch classes if their teenager doesn’t get the ‘best’ teacher.
  • Control which elective classes the child takes.
  • Control which extracurricular activities the teenager engages in, and become a volunteer for that activity to keep a watchful eye over their child.
  • Try to control a child’s friendships.

Helicopter parenting sometimes even extends into the child’s adulthood, where the parent might continue to exert control over an adult child’s life, such as by writing their graduate school application or calling potential employers.

Learning the balance between caring and overstepping boundaries is not always straightforward.

Now, with the increase of family caregivers in the sandwich generation providing care for both aging parents and children, many helicopter parents are at risk of acquiring another term associated with overbearingness: that of a “helicopter caregiver.” The reason is that it has become very common for adult children to find themselves slipping into a role reversal in regard to their senior parents, with the best of intentions — to keep family members safe. This treatment could easily lead senior loved ones to feel indignant, upset, or perhaps aggravated at their new loss of control.

For many caregivers, the desire to protect and control the risks of a parent’s life is taking away a parent’s independence to choose or decide how they want to live their own lives. The challenge is to be able to accept risk not only for yourself but also for the people that you care about.

How to Step in When You Are Needed Without Being Overbearing

It can be easy for some to overstep the bounds of concern when helping to care for an aging loved one, without even realizing it. If you think you may be a “helicopter caregiver,” here is some insight on how to step in only when needed:

Preserve self-sufficiency: When safety is a concern, it is important to step in, while also being respectful and collaborative. The objective is to ensure that your loved one preserves as much autonomy as possible. If your loved one is not making good decisions and not willing to accept help and support from you, such as using a walker when needed to prevent a fall, it may be wise to enlist the help of a doctor or a geriatric care manager to present expert suggestions. But even then, you must realize that it is the right of every competent adult to make their own decisions, even if they are what you would consider to be bad decisions.

Let some worries go: When you’re attempting to influence issues that are not severely affecting your loved one’s health or safety, and he or she is cognitively still able to make decisions, it’s best to let those worries go. “A child should be sensitive to a parent’s need for self-determination and maintaining self-identity,” said Barry Jacobs, clinical psychologist and author of “The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping Aging Parents.”

Schedule visits with your loved one: If you constantly show up unexpectedly, it may appear that you are being overbearing or controlling. Invite your loved one to dinner, go out to a meal, or enjoy some other event together.

Maintain open communication: Communication on both ends is important and valuable. Don’t call several times a day, unless that’s what your loved one wants. When you are chatting, be careful not to probe them with constant questions that might be interpreted as interrogation, but to maintain genuine back and forth conversation.

Offer suggestions rather than orders: At times if you notice things that are unusual from their previous norms, such as laundry laying on the floor or dirty dishes on the table, then it might be helpful to mention these items as a suggestion to be taken care of rather than ordering that it be done right away.

Give your loved one space: To help seniors maintain their dignity and independence, it is important to offer them plenty of space. Giving your loved one privacy is also very important.

Don’t force help upon them: With open communication, you can listen to what your loved one has to say and his or her requests for the help they feel they might need. By having such conversations, you can also get an idea of things that are changing overall for your senior regarding their daily needs.

Are You a Family Caregiver?

If you are a caregiver for a loved one, try to give them the space and independence they need while they can still make decisions for themselves. However, it is always wise for your loved one to plan in advance for when they are no longer able to handle their own financial affairs or make their own medical decisions. Planning for this eventuality is called incapacity planning and involves signing a general power of attorney and an advance medical directive, along with several supporting documents. It is also always wise for your loved one, with your assistance, to plan in advance for long-term care, which is almost always needed at some point in order for your loved one to age in place safely. If in-home care becomes untenable or unaffordable, will the next step be to move in with an adult child or move to a retirement community or assisted living facility? These types of decisions should be made as far in advance as possible, to avoid last-minute surprises and crises. Assisted living communities in the DC Metro area can be quite expensive, costing $6,000-$9,000 per month, and are often unaffordable for many families. Nursing homes in the DC Metro area are even more expensive, costing $12,000-$15,000 a month, which can be catastrophic for most families. Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection is the process of protecting your assets from having to be spent down in connection with entry into an assisted living facility or a nursing home, while also helping ensure that your loved one gets the best possible care and maintains the highest possible quality of life, whether at home, in an assisted living facility, or in a nursing home. The Farr Law Firm offers an initial consultation:

Elder Care Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Care Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Care Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Care DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.