No matter how much we avoid it, the day will come when our parents will not be able to get by without us, just as we would not have been able to grow up without them.

From one point onwards, the distance between the present good and tomorrow’s helplessness decreases in a visible manner. Today’s needs are becoming more acute and turn into tomorrow’s impotence, and the amplitude and speed of their worsening depend on the way in which they are fulfilled today. Our parents need us even when neither they nor we are aware of it.

Just as each person has specific characteristics, each family is different. The needs, roles, and interactions between adult children and their parents depend on the unique dynamics of each personality, intertwined with the dynamics of family circumstances. However, specialised studies identify certain patterns that are worth keeping in mind in our efforts to help our elderly parents be happy.

The need to adapt to new technologies

People older than 65 are the most vulnerable to fake news. In a study with a sample of 3,500 subjects, it was found that people older than 65 shared 7 times more fake news than those between the ages of 18 and 29. This fact is reflected in an increased vulnerability of the elderly to financial scams. No less than 17% of American adults over the age of 50 stated that money was taken from them by fraud. Of these, more than half registered a loss bigger than 1,000 dollars.

Fake news and scams are closely related to the skills that technology users possess. The less these skills are developed, the greater the risk of believing a lie or being deceived. Due to the more difficult access to information, the generation of the 1950s-1990s was accustomed to believing that the mere reception of certain content represents finding out the truth. “I heard it on the news” or “I saw it on the Internet” become the arguments that validate the information.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased need for people over 50 to adapt to technology. During the pandemic, three out of four people aged 50 and older relied on technology to connect with those close to them, be they friends or family members. Seventy-eight percent of them use social media platforms. Among the types of motivation that lead them to use technology are: connecting with others (66%), fun and amusement (59%), help in completing tasks (47%), help in maintaining health (43%), acquiring new skills (38%) etc. No less than 70% of people over the age of 70 bought a gadget in the last year.

The use of technology by 70% of parents over 50 years old, combined with the lack of skills to interpret online communication mechanisms and the move of physical reality to the new virtual universe, makes one of their main needs to have assistance and help in the process of acquiring skills to interpret the social media phenomenon. Most of them use technology for social media platforms, which are the main medium for misinformation and fraud.

The need for socialisation

Married people feel less lonely than single, divorced, or widowed people. While only 14% of married people feel lonely, among the unmarried the percentage reaches 30%. Married women have a higher risk of loneliness than married men, while single women have a lower risk of loneliness than single men.

Social isolation or loneliness represent important risks of old age. Marital relationship status is a strong indicator of loneliness.

Seven in 10 adults over 50 reported increased feelings of anxiety, sadness, and depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 8 in 10 are worried about the future, while 1 in 2 have been anxious in the past two weeks or reported difficulty falling asleep or sleeping altogether.

The need to care for grandchildren

According to a study on the needs of grandparents, participation in the educational training of their grandchildren is important for them.

Passing along family values ​​and culture through stories is considered to be one of the essential ways to make a contribution. Grandparents need to be listened to and to be recognised for their contribution to the shaping of the new generation.

In a study of adults over the age of 50 in the United States, 89% of grandparents said that their relationship with grandchildren is beneficial for their mental health. The principle is valid for both women and men. Over 20% of the women in the study provided free care to family members or friends aged 18 or older. The percentage of men involved in caring for others is 16%, but the perception of the benefit on mental health is similar for men and women. Dr. Brittne Nelson-Kakulla points out that the emotional support grandparents and grandchildren give each other is directly proportional to their happiness and health.

We are part of the purpose of our parents’ lives

Popular wisdom says that humans die only when they give up achieving, planning, and hoping. The uselessness generated by one’s helplessness is one of the most pressing factors for any rational being. In addition to the helplessness that increases with ageing, the social context has uprooted us from our connection with the earth, as a symbol of the fundamental needs that have preoccupied humans throughout our lives.

Making a living from increasingly specialised work meant that all other needs were solved with the help of various other specialists. When retirement takes a person out of their regular work, they become ineffective at finding purpose among life’s necessities. The sooner they become inactive, the faster they become helpless and thus meaningless.

This need is all the more acute as our professions become more and more narrow when it comes to the degree of specialisation. The number of grandparents who have employment contracts is proof of the awareness of the need for meaning fulfilled through work. In the USA, in 2011, 20% of them were employed. In 2019 the percentage reached 40% and continues to grow. Work gives life meaning and sustains it.

Besides this perspective of existential meaning, love is another way to create meaning. Even if the couple’s relationship favours the expression of love through behaviours that amplify meaning, the need to care for children is always present. When children were young, it was important for parents to learn to give help; now, when they are older, it is just as important to learn to receive help from their children, just as children need to learn to receive less and give more to their parents.

The period between these two stages is undefined, obscure even, and represents the turning point of the relationship between parents and children. Balance can be found in a relationship between equals, when interactions demonstrate care and help that is discreet, unspoken, unsolicited, and not imposed, but manifested from both directions. 

Ștefăniţă-Marian Poenariu identifies, from a series of studies carried out on elderly parents, the connection between their emotional health and the interactions within the extended family.