Many adults in the dark about aging parents

Ask any two adult siblings about their parents’ desires and you’re likely to get views that are both radically different and equally wrong.

In fact, Brian Carpenter, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, has found adult children to be so clueless about parental wishes that a random stranger might be as likely as they to guess accurately what their parent really wants out of life.

According to Carpenter, there is no clear indicator of which children will be “good” predictors, nor which ones will be “bad” predictors.

There is some evidence that children who perceive their relationships as emotionally closer are better. There seems to be no significant correlation between gender, age or geographical proximity of children and parents and whether a child is a “good” or “poor” predictor of parental wishes.

Carpenter’s research, which is ongoing, will seek to determine what characteristics do correlate with being a “good” predictor.

He discussed the nature of his research in a recent edition of the American Psychological Association Newsletter. The Brookdale Foundation and the Administration on Aging support his research.

Carpenter has conducted research suggesting that adult children have a broad range of accuracy at predicting parental life style, financial, housing and medical preferences. Some children are no more apt to make the correct choice for parents than a random stranger, while other children can accurately determine the wishes of their parents.

As indicated in the Terri Schiavo case, determining what a loved one would want is neither a simple nor clear decision.

“When you’re at that moment, when you have to say, ‘Yes, let’s discontinue life support,’ that’s really challenging psychologically, no matter what your beliefs were before that moment,” Carpenter said. “That’s the one case that made the news, but these kinds of decisions get made every day.”

Autonomy, personal growth matter

Initially, Carpenter began the study by interviewing one child of aging parents, asking them to guess what their parents might answer to questions about everyday lifestyle choices. The study was expanded by extrapolating the method to study more than one child of aging parents and determining responses to a broad array of preferences, such as psychosocial preferences, preferences regarding medical care, and pragmatic preferences such as financial decisions.

Overall, the most poorly predicted decisions involved preferences regarding autonomy and personal growth. Children tend to believe that independence and continued education, exploration and growth are less important to parents than parents say they are.

So children think their parents aren’t that interested in attending cultural events, traveling, reading, staying abreast of current events and making their own everyday choices although those things remain important to older adults.

The question that Carpenter and his colleagues seek answers to is: “What makes children good at predicting parental responses to these questions?” The research team is examining whether family dynamics and interaction style — a tendency to interrupt one another, speak over one another or make critical comments — could predict the ability of a child to be a “good” predictor.

Additionally, once they identify what characteristics of the family relationship make children good predictors of parental wishes, how can those characteristics be applied or taught in other families?

Carpenter’s research also includes an educative portion, in which a workbook is constructed for each family member, matching parental and child answers to each question.

“In the workbook and family education session, we also provide tips about communications skills and decision-making strategies, helping families figure out how to start and then have these conversations in a way that’s most useful,” Carpenter said.

Disparities in answers are discussed together, thereby facilitating the initial conversations about parental mortality and wishes later in life, topics that some families find difficult to bring up.

Carpenter stressed that such conversations are part of a larger process. It takes many conversations and much time to know parents well enough to determine their wishes and desires later in life.

Carpenter said that it is essential to begin an open dialogue between parents and children regarding wishes later in life.