Boomers shouldn't treat parents like kids

Michelle Barnhart is a professor of marketing at Michelle Barnhart is a professor of marketing at Oregon State University. Photo Credit: Handout

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Many boomers hope to alter the negative perceptions of aging -- especially when it comes to their generation. As long as they believe they are active and vital, they expect younger folks to treat them as active and vital.

Yet, with their own elders, boomers often reinforce the stereotypes of aging instead of redefining them. Instead of treating their parents as independent adults, they often treat them like dependent children.

"I saw the boomers doing those same things with their parents that they would probably be terribly offended by if somebody did it to them as they became older," says Michelle Barnhart, professor of marketing at Oregon State University. "They were trying to assist their parents to the point of infantilizing them."

As part of her research on consumerism and old-age identity, Barnhart found that boomers often see their parents as incapable, dependent and unaware because they exhibit physical signs of aging, from wrinkles to being a bit unsteady on their feet. Simply put, boomers, like the rest of society, confuse aging with being old.

For a new study, Barnhart interviewed people in their 80s, their families and their caregivers. One 89-year woman mentioned that when her daughters accompanied her to the doctor's office, the physician would speak only to the children, assuming the woman had cognitive problems. The woman told Barnhart, "I wanted to grab him by the collar and say, 'Look, talk to me! I'm the patient.' "

Barnhart notes that aging often does mean reduced capabilities, but there are ways to deal with the changes and maintain an older person's self-respect. One older woman in the study who lived alone paid home-care aides to assist her with daily tasks. But she didn't frame the experience as being dependent. "She sees herself as the employer," Barnhart says. Similarly, many seniors who have trouble keeping track of bills become combative when their children take over their finances. But the boomer child can get a better result not by telling the parents they cannot manage their affairs but by equating the change to hiring an accountant.

Over the years, boomers-led revolutions that changed an array of cultural norms, from music to sex to civil rights. Barnhart's research concludes they can do it again with aging.

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"We subtly or maybe not so subtly, or maybe even overtly, treat people like devalued, marginalized people," she says. "Just by becoming aware, we can stop doing that."

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