As boomers approach the outskirts of being old, a new aging dilemma is beginning to emerge: simultaneous developmental phases with their aging parents. It is one thing to be fifty-something and have aging parents in their mid to late seventies. Both parties are clearly situated in separate developmental phases. The fifty-something adult is navigating the tasks of middle age, preserving stability while at the same time orchestrating a new purpose and direction for the second half of life. Their aging parents, on the other hand, have different marching orders, preserving control in a world where all control is being lost while at the same time creating a legacy before time runs out. The challenge is to find an effective middle ground so both parties can successfully complete their developmental tasks. But what happens when adult children enter their late sixties and their aging parents are still alive, where both parties wind up in the last phase of life?
Seniority appears to be the rule of thumb. While adult child in their late sixties are beginning the battle for control and the search for legacy, these developmental needs are usually “put on hold” for the sake of the aging parent. Practicality dictates that both parties cannot be insisting on control as well as the airtime for life review, but the seniority accommodation is not as simple as it sounds.
Developmental needs are first and foremost embedded marching orders, which are involuntary, unconscious, and consumptive. They are background software for life-long human developmental and exert a pressing influence on perception, cognition, and behavior. When two generations share the same developmental zone, a new type of power struggle emerges over whose needs deserve priority. As with all generational conflicts, a middle ground is hard to find and hold.
The best course for adult children caught in this developmental simulcast is to make a selective course correction while their aging parents are still alive. This involves mapping out “control sustaining” strategies for their personal life (i.e. where to live, how to pay for it, how to manage health, how to foster community, etc.) while supporting their aging parent’s need to control their own destiny. It can awkward, confusing, and unsatisfying, but it defuses the unwinnable argument of entitlement. While everyone is entitled to address their developmental needs, in the context of families, this may require delay, compromise, and compassion for those who are going ahead.