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  • Stan A. Goldberg Ph.D.

How to Prevent Conflicts With Aging Parents

Most conflicts with aging parents are unnecessary.

How to Prevent Conflicts With Aging Parents

  • Adult children need to recognize that their parent's identity changes over time.

  • A parent's memory loss is not necessarily an indication of dementia.

  • While it's natural to hope for a pleasant future, it's important to have realistic expectations.

  • For example, your parents may need a locked memory facility one day.

When I was a caregiver counselor, I heard a litany of reasons for conflicts my adult clients had with their parents. As I listened to each, I invisibly shook my head and silently said, "Me too."

Intergenerational conflict seems to possess a certain universality[i], whether it was my parents becoming annoyed because I made decisions for them or my adult children wondering if my addled brain permitted me to hike alone in the wilderness.

Although I heard many permutations of intergenerational conflicts, four out-paced all others: ones related to identity, memory, independence, and planning for the future.

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Sociologists maintain that a person's identity involves their beliefs, history, abilities, and expectations. [ii] It is like a summary statement of a person's life, analogous to how a novel is described on a book jacket. For example, this is how someone summarized Ernest Hemingway's 128-page novella, The Old Man and the Sea: "An old man, a small boat, and a few days reveal the story of human struggle throughout the ages."

Not bad for a classic. But what changes if instead of Santiago taking three days to land the fish, it takes 20 minutes? We have a very different story that might not even qualify for a mention in a fishing magazine. The same principle applies to the identity of your aging parent.

The Takeaway. When interacting with your parent, understand that at 70 years of age, they don't have the same identity as they did at 40. If they did, their life would have been static for 30 years, which is difficult to imagine. Treat them as they are today, not how they were nor how you would like them to be.

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Memory Loss Is Not Necessarily an Indication of Dementia

Yes, your mother may misplace her glasses five times a day—every day. And she may occasionally forget the name of your son, her favorite grandchild, but are these signs of Alzheimer's or other types of dementia? Not necessarily.

Memory is more complex than popular "memory improvement" programs would like you to believe. It can be short-term, sequential, long-term, or working (executive function).[iii] Each can be affected by drugs[iv], poor sleep[v], lack of exercise[vi], unresolved issues[vii], or a declining age-related information-processing ability[viii], just to mention a few.

The Takeaway: Before assuming your parent is "losing his marbles," approach the problem as if you are a clinical scientist. Note the "strange" behavior's context, frequency, or severity, not for a single incidence but for several occasions, before you make an appointment for them with a neurologist.

You Are Not Your Parent's Parent

We all want to be as helpful as we can with our parents, often trying to anticipate their needs before they ask for help. You believe doing something before being asked shows compassion, but your father becomes annoyed because he thinks you are treating him as if he reverted to his childhood. Some of the pain parents and adult children cause each other may result when there is a gap between expectations and reality. [ix]

The Takeaway. Yes, you can assume that your parent's abilities, from physical to cognitive and everything in between, declined over the years. However, there is no fixed point where they require help. It's a moving target. To avoid unnecessary conflict, discuss when it is appropriate to offer help and when they prefer to struggle.

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Plan for the Future Today

I visualize stalking wild trout in fast-moving streams at 90 as well as I do now at 78. But I know that's as ridiculous as believing I'll ever again run a marathon. The more I allow "hope" to replace reality, the more difficult I'll make my adult children's lives when my brain becomes as addled as they think it currently is.

It may be difficult for adult parents to face a future less pleasant than the 1950s Ozzie & Harriet TV sitcom, where every problem had a simple solution. One of the most difficult counseling tasks I had was convincing a client and his family that because of their dynamics, it was time to explore locked memory facilities, even though he was years away from needing one.

The Takeaway. Thinking about a rosy future is uplifting. Thinking about one that is uncertain can be threatening. But thinking about one you know will be unpleasant is necessary.

Stan Goldberg, Ph.D., - Website - Book -


[i] Rothenberg WA, Hussong AM, Chassin L. Intergenerational continuity in high-conflict family environments: Investigating a mediating depressive pathway. Dev Psychol. 2018 Feb;54(2):385-396. doi: 10.1037/dev0000419. Epub 2017 Oct 23. PMID: 29058932; PMCID: PMC5788736.

[ii] Guenther, C.L., Wilton, E., Fernandes, R. (2020). Identity. In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T.K. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham.

[iii] Stan Goldberg, Preventing Senior Moments: How to Stay Sharp Into Your 90s and Beyond, (Lanham, MA: Roman & Littlefield, 2023).

[iv] Sanjay Gupta, Keep Sharp, (U.K., Headline Home, 2021)

[v] Arianna Huffington, The Sleep Revolution (New York: Harmony, 2016)

[vi] Mandolesi L, Polverino A, Montuori S, Foti F, Ferraioli G, Sorrentino P, Sorrentino G. Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Front Psychol. 2018 Apr 27;9:509. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00509. PMID: 29755380; PMCID: PMC5934999.

[vii] Stan Goldberg, Lessons for the Living, (Boston, Trumpeter 2009)

[viii] Murman DL. The Impact of Age on Cognition. Semin Hear. 2015 Aug;36(3):111-21. doi: 10.1055/s-0035-1555115. PMID: 27516712; PMCID: PMC4906299.

[ix] “The gap between expectations and reality” BMJ. 2000 May 20;320(7246):A. PMID: 10818048; PMCID: PMC1118022.


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