What to do when an aging parent can no longer care for adult child

The dynamics of family are never dull.  They take twists and turns throughout life, invigorating, frustrating, necessary and always there.  Families build patterns of behavior that at times work well and other times not so much. And of course there are as many perspectives about the family dynamic as there are family members.  And they are just hard to cope with some times.

One such dilemma that individual family members seek help on is when their older parents are still helping their adult child who is oftentimes over 50.  Especially financially.  As a parent, it is your job to help nurture and help your child as they are growing up.  But when does that end?  For some children, it may never.  And if this is a pattern that has been enabled, how do you stop?

The answer is “it depends.” For some families, even into adulthood, parents have supported their adult kids.  They may have started to help the adult child because of developmental or physical disabilities, mental illness, chemical dependency issues or loss of employment.  Adults get to make their own decisions on how they help their adult children.  The problem comes when the parent now needs help and can no longer make decisions for themselves or their adult child.  Then who takes on the responsibility for them?  Culturally it is assumed that the other family members will jump in and help.  But that does not always work and can be complicated with the family history.

So what to do? There is an assumption that once you reach adulthood, you slowly wean yourself off of your parent’s financial and social support, starting your own life and moving forward. But there are adults out there that can’t or won’t.  Never mind why. For parents, there is no right or wrong way to help adult children.  What really matters is that they don’t make the situation worse and leave a mess when they can no longer do it. Some parents plan to help an adult child by including it in their estate planning or pull in supports from different entities that can help the adult child when the parents are gone.  Or even have discussion with the other siblings of whom if any will be there to continue the help.

I have seen many families struggle through this and often times have difficulty on what to do next.   The biggest difficulty arises when, for example, mom has been helping her son both financially and socially for 30+ years then can no longer do it for health or financial reasons, and the son now needs an income and housing quickly.  And most likely there has been family resentment building that makes it hard to problem solve this without strong emotions.

At this stage, getting help to find out what resources are out there, and making sure your parent’s wishes are honored is very helpful.  It may be someone like me from Mercer Island Youth and Family Services, a lawyer, a financial professional or clergy.  And clear communication will help create a plan for the best outcome possible.

Betsy Zuber is the Geriatric Specialist for Mercer Island Youth and Family Services, a department of the City of Mercer Island. She provides social services to anyone who lives on Mercer Island 55+ and their families. You can reach her at 206-275-7752 or betsy.zuber@mercergov.org.


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