Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Understanding the perspectives of adult children and their parents

A few years ago, I stumbled upon the song “Closing Time” by Semisonic, and found it acknowledged the emotional complications of life transitions in one poignant line: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” That sums up why people often feel quite ambivalent during a transition: we may be grieving the closing of one chapter in our life as we step into a new one. This is frequently true for an older adult if they are considering, or have decided, to move from the home they have been living in to a retirement residence.

Even when someone realizes it is in their best interest to move into a retirement residence, it is likely they are grappling with mixed emotions. They may have a lifetime of memories associated with their home and their belongings, a rhythm to their lives that is familiar and comfortable, and questions about their ability to thrive in a new place. This can create feelings of sadness, as well as a bit of reticence about the future. Frequently, those emotions are living right alongside excitement and anticipation about new possibilities in this next chapter.

That’s the thing about emotions: they aren’t very neat and we rarely experience just one at a time! It can be helpful to think of emotions as being a pie with many different-sized slices. Some of those slices may include excitement, fear, sadness, regret, anxiety, and anticipation. The size of the slices may change as we go through a transition, often in ways that surprise us. Sometimes the main slice will be excitement, and the next moment it may be sadness. Thinking about feelings as pie slices can remind us it’s normal to have a mixture of conflicting feelings.

In my experience with my clients, these muddy, shifting emotions may cause some friction between adult children and their parents. Adult children are often focused on the practical aspects of a move, and haven’t fully realized the emotional impact for their parents. In addition, while the parent is riding the emotional roller coaster that is common during life transitions, their adult child may be assisting with the downsizing, helping to sell the family home, and taking their parent to find the retirement residence that suits them best. They are often fitting all of this into busy lives that may not have a lot of extra space for the tasks that need to be done for the move to go smoothly. In addition, depending on the reason for the move, the adult child may also be concerned for his or her parent’s safety, and be anxious to help their parent settle into a retirement residence as quickly as possible.

All of this can be a breeding ground for misunderstandings and the feeling of not being heard or understood. Adult children may be focussed on the practical issues, parents on the emotional impact, and this can leave everyone feeling a bit unsettled. If this sounds like your family, you may be wondering what could make this go smoother. Try stepping into the perspective of the other person. If you are the adult child, spend some time focusing on how this move is impacting your parent emotionally. If you are the older adult, try focusing on the practical aspects of the move your child may be managing, as well as considering if they may be concerned for your safety.

It’s amazing what happens when we stop and see the world from the perspective of the other person. Behaviour that seemed irritating or illogical can suddenly make sense and lead to feelings of compassion. In turn, that empathy may open the door for an Essential Conversation about how to make the transition smoother for everyone.

Dr AmyAbout Dr. Amy D’Aprix

Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.