Am I a Helicopter Child, and If So, Why is That a Bad Thing?

Q. I heard my sister and brother talking about my mother’s care the other day when they thought I couldn’t hear them. I distinctly remember them mentioning the term “helicopter child,” and they were referring to me!

I have heard the term “helicopter” parent, and I know that it refers to someone who has the tendency to hover over children and swoop in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble. I admit that I have some of that going on with my children, but with her, I’m just trying to be a responsible caregiver.

I may seem controlling sometimes, but I attribute that to the fact that I have a Type-A personality, and want to make sure my mom has everything in order, and that every detail is covered so she has the best quality of life. She did it for me, and now its my turn to pay her back.

In my view of things, I am a great caregiver and mom is lucky to have someone like me around. My brother and sister are lucky too, because they don’t have to be as involved in her care or make tough decisions on her behalf. Please explain what it means to be called a “helicopter child,” and why that’s a bad thing.

A. “Helicopter child” is a real term; and it refers to a new group of “hoverers” that is emerging. When some people think of helicopter children, what comes to mind is an adult child who controls their elderly parents’ every move. Some older parents don’t mind, while others don’t appreciate being treated like children.

As you likely know, caring for an elderly parent can be physically and emotionally draining. In order to cope, some adult children try to dictate what their elderly parents do each day – their medical care, what they eat, where they go, and how they get there. Similar to helicopter parents, who hover too closely over their children, adult children may become overly involved in their aging parents’ lives, as well.

Being a helicopter child is a protective response – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are certain times that all of us need to be protected by somebody who cares for us, and I’m sure your mother knows that you care tremendously about her and her well-being. But, sometimes helicopter children overstep their boundaries, causing an unhealthy parent-child relationship.

The following could make your relationship with your mother unhealthy:

– Taking away her independence: Older adults often desire independence, and a desire to make their own choices and take their own risks. Your mother may resent the fact that you don’t let her do that, especially if she’s reasonably capable.

– Infantilizing your parents: Treating parents like children can infantilize them, too. You don’t want treat older adults like children; as that comes across as insulting.

Taking away their right to take informed risk: Seniors have opinions and beliefs and, in some cases, they have the right to take informed risk. You can’t take away that right – you don’t want to take it away. What you want to do is make sure they truly understand the risk.

Here’s how to toe the line between caring and overbearing:

1. Start discussions early.

Instead of making all of the decisions for your mother, try to find out what she really wants. Start the conversation about what she would want if she starts to decline, the features of a facility she could see herself living in, and whom she’d like as a health care agent.

2. Pick your battles.

Some issues adult children simply can’t ignore. For instance, if their parents have stopped bathing or cleaning the home, neglect to take their medicines, or won’t see the doctor. Getting lost or into car accidents are major red flags, too. But other battles – say, under-tipping at restaurants, failing to wear a hearing aid or appearing to play favorites with children – are less important to win. Decide carefully where the line of criticality is, and when it’s best to step in or to take a step back.

3. Seek support.

You don’t have to do it all, or to be the one to ensure that everything is in order for your mother. Enlist support from friends, family and – if your parent is in a long-term care facility – health care staff. Social workers, for example, can help coordinate meetings with physicians, nurses, physical therapists and others to make sure everyone is on the same page with the resident’s short- and long-term goals.

4. Take care of yourself.

Sometimes if you’re so focused on a loved one’s health and well-being, you may be neglecting your own health. It’s important that you continue to take care of yourself, so you can keep taking care of you mother.

Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein, director of geriatric education at Northwell Health, says the amount of control an adult child should have over their elderly parent’s life comes down to one thing: cognitive ability. “If they are cognitively intact, whatever it is that they want to do, they should be doing,” she said. “We owe the elderly respect and dignity and decision making until the very end.”

Wolf-Klein also said as long as an elderly adults are thinking clearly, they should always be allowed to participate in their own care and offer their own opinion on how to resolve issues, even if they’re forgetful or accident-prone.

It is commendable that you provide care for your mother, and as you are aware, it’s not an easy job. If your mother can no longer live independently and is showing signs that living alone is a strain, it may be time to consider other alternatives. Again, be sure to discuss these options with her, and depending on your situation, include other family members in discussions.

Whether the outcome is assisted living or nursing home care in the future, it is always wise to plan ahead. Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection is the process of protecting assets from having to be spent down in connection with entry into assisted living or nursing home care, while also helping ensure that your mom 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. While your mother still has her wits about her, please contact us to make an appointment for a consultation, and start planning today:

Fairfax Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 540-479-143
Rockville Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 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.

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