Experts who track the changing dynamics of family life have largely ignored a stage in relationships that could be called the awkward age.
It's a time in some families when parents who have long cherished their independence find themselves needing some assistance. That could range from simple household tasks - changing a light bulb, mowing a lawn, cooking a meal - to personal care. Whatever the challenge, many parents feel awkward about admitting that they could use an outstretched hand or a listening ear. They also know their children are busy with jobs and families.
At the same time, their children experience an awkwardness of their own. They want to help but remain shy about broaching the subject. A conspiracy of silence and pretense may prevail, with both generations adopting a false cheerfulness.
Suzanne Salamon, a geriatric specialist in Boston, described part of the challenge during an audioconference with reporters last week. "This particular generation of people in their 70s, 80s, 90s was raised differently than young people today," Dr. Salamon said. "They were raised in the Depression and brought up to say everything was OK. They don't want to be a burden. No matter what you ask them, they'll say, 'We're doing just fine.' They will try to cover it up."
Covering up has become easier as the distances separating far-flung relatives have grown. Back when extended families often lived nearby, sons and daughters could drop in for impromptu visits. They could survey the situation and offer to help. Now, when getting together often requires a plane ticket, it's hard to ring the doorbell and say, ever so casually, "I was just in the neighborhood and thought I'd say hello."
One long-married couple recently appreciated offers of help from their three children while the husband recuperated from knee surgery. One daughter came for 10 days. "It was a great gift to have her calm presence and quiet assumption of cooking, washing up, laundry, etc.," the wife says in an e-mail. Another daughter came for a long weekend. The third arrived with her family to spend a night.
"We seem to have reached the stage where our children are concerned about our ability to care for ourselves," the wife says. Referring to their three-level house, she adds, "We wonder if we will be able to sustain ourselves in this place as we had planned. Sobering thoughts, to be sure!"
Another friend faced similar sobering considerations recently when, after talks with her family, she made a major move to a condo near her son's home. It meant giving up a townhouse she enjoyed, downsizing her possessions, saying goodbye to longtime friends, and leaving a church she cherished.
Despite the regrets, she is finding rewards. She likes the layout of her new home, the ease of one-floor living, the pastoral setting. She has visited the senior center and signed up for bridge, line dancing, and a book club. Best of all, she's nearby when her grandson calls and says, "Grandma, can I come over and hang out with you?"
As growing ranks of retirees and baby boomers face similar decisions and changes, families may find themselves striking a delicate balance between independence and interdependence. In the best scenarios, they will talk candidly - about housing, finances, needs, hopes.
Every family's situation and solutions will be different. Role reversals, even on a modest scale, can be tricky. But perhaps the greatest mistake is not to ask for help or not to accept when someone asks, "What do you need? What can I do?" Those questions, echoing across the country, could produce a welcome rallying cry as both generations say: Goodbye, awkwardness and pretense. Hello, openness and honesty.