How to Be a Better Daughter (or Son)

It's all about fostering close relationships and social integration

(This content is sponsored by grandPad.)

I have a mother I adore — she’s strong, wise, funny and kind. I’m grateful for her every day.

She’s 89 years old and lives alone. After 59 years of marriage, she was widowed five years ago when my dad had a sudden brain hemorrhage. Caring about — and sometimes for — my mother is a meaningful part of my life. It is not, however, easy.

I’m in good company. Parent care is the new go-to topic among girlfriends. We talk about our parent’s conditions, care arrangements, wishes and safety. We cover the spectrum: strained relationships, parents with difficult behaviors, long-distance parents, even all-out feuds with siblings about care arrangements.

There is one thing we all share: We want to ensure the health, safety and joy of our our aging parents. Yet when our cars are quiet after we drop the kids off at sports practice, menacing questions swirl into the silence:

• Am I doing enough for my mom/dad?
• Is what I am doing “right”?
• When my mom refuses my help, is it safe to just let her be?
• Am a good daughter (or son)?

Lucky for me, I am also a gerontologist. I get to work with families on their journeys through advanced age. I also have easy access to the thousands of research articles on aging that are published each year. Because I know you are busy, my goal is to share share what I’ve learned so that by the end of this article you know how to be a better daughter or son.

In a series of studies of tens of thousands of older adults, researcher Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad examined and ranked the lifestyle factors that best predict longevity. The most important factor was not exercise nor even quitting smoking. The top two most important factors in predicting longevity were close relationships and social integration. Understanding and acting on this knowledge will make you a better daughter or son.

Close Relationships

Find a time when you and your parent are not in a hurry. Turn off background noise, sit down and be at the same level. Then tell your aging parent how much they mean to you.

If you are already close, tell them that you are happy that you two are close. If you and your parent are not close, take this opportunity to tell them that you would like to be closer now that you are both in the second part of life.

Next, ask him or her who else they feel close to. If there isn’t anyone they feel close with, ask them who they would like to be close with. Together, brainstorm ways to connect with the people in your parent’s life that they would like to be closer with. Allow time for silence as this is often a time of reflection, and then spend time listening even if the conversation is circuitous or not right on topic.

Social Integration

The most significant factor in healthy longevity was social integration. Social integration refers to how much you interact with people as you move through your day. It includes all interactions — large or small — with strangers, acquaintances, friends and family, in other words: anyone. It’s how often your parent sees another human, talks on the phone, sends/receives a letter, waves to someone while out walking, chats on a video call, says hello to the person delivering the mail, receives a photograph or reaches out to a grandchild.

To be a better daughter or son, your job is to patiently, lovingly assist your mother or father in finding ways of increasing social integration.

Every older adult is different in how they are willing to connect. A number of older adults I’ve worked with will tell me, “I don’t need to interact with anyone.” What we are learning is that this statement is comparable to the statement, “ I don’t need to eat.”

Humans need to sleep, eat, drink and engage in some form of social integration. Because there are so many different modalities, there is a connection format that is right for everyone. Your job is to patiently, humbly listen to your parent to determine ways in which he or she would be interested in connecting. Once you find some ways, you can help them get going.

The solution I found with my mother is the grandPad, a tablet that is engineered to be frustration-free and designed to delight users with every tap. Before I started working for grandPad, I purchased a monthly membership for my mother. With a touch of my photo my mom video-calls me. There are no passwords and no Wi-Fi required because LTE internet connection is built right in.

GrandPad was designed to also work for people with lower vision and hearing impairments. It includes access to over 30 million songs plus curated news, cognitively stimulating games, weather and most importantly, live, loving, human support.

The grandPad arrived preloaded with my mom’s contacts and family photos. The photos appear in a continuous loop on the grandPad as it sits on its wireless charging stand. By pressing an image of me or my sister or her friend, my mom video-calls us. She has 24 contacts on her grandPad. The average number is 14 and some grandPad users have more than 100.

After our mother broke her hip, she had a caregiver for three months. Her name was Joy, and she was aptly named. Joy used grandPad to connect our mother with us, and it gave us a window into their day: meals prepared, activities enjoyed. And it just put a real face to the very human connection caregivers and clients enjoy.

Joy remarked, “When your mother’s hip is hurting, I hand her the grandPad, and she looks at hundreds of photos of her family, and that smile returns to her face.” For you to see that smile, I’ve attached an embarrassing selfie my mom and I took using the grandPad. Gulp. Yep, we are wearing matching pajamas — just another daughter doing whatever it takes to foster social integration and a close relationship.

By Kerry Burnight
Kerry Burnight, Ph.D., served 19 years as a professor of Geriatric Medicine at UC Irvine School of Medicine. She was the founder of the nation's first  Elder Abuse Forensic Center. She currently serves as chief gerontologist with grandPad. Her mission is to improve the autonomy and joy of older adults.

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