100-Year-Old Moms Still Fret about Their 78-Year-Old Kids

Why parents never wipe that worry off their faces

Adults worry about their aging parents — this we know. Many a floor has been paced while people ponder the best options for Mom or Dad during the elders’ golden years.

Seniors, too, are doing some pacing (or praying). A new study reveals that the well-being of adult children has a profound effect on their older parents’ mental health and well-being.

If you’re looking to breathe a sigh of relief when your child finally departs for college, gets married, or lands that big new job in a major city, you’d better buckle up instead. Worry may be a permanent state of mind for parents.

A new study published in October’s Research on Aging suggests that older mothers, in particular, are more prone to depression if their adult children struggle with serious problems such as alcohol or drug abuse, or financial worries.

“I know this to be true,” one 76-year-old mother with two grown children told LifeZette. “I remember when my first daughter, now 53, was born. My uncle looked at her sleeping in her bassinet and said, ‘You’ll never have a day without worry again.’ At the time, I thought it was sort of a depressing comment, but now I see it as a profound expression of love.”

“What surprised me in this study was the degree to which reports of children’s problems was strongly correlated with depressive symptoms,” the study’s co-author, Karl Pillemer, told the Cornell Chronicle.

Pillemer is the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development and a professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“The mother-child bond is so strong that even (for) mothers in their late 70s and 80s, their mental health was enormously affected by their grown children’s troubles,” Pillemer continued. “In studies, I have interviewed 100-year-olds who are still worried about their 78-year-old children. This is a very important contributor to older parents’ health.”

Related: How Stressed Moms Fight Back

Pillemer and his co-authors, J. Jill Suitor of Purdue University, and Catherine Riffin and Megan Gilligan of Iowa State University, analyzed data from interviews with 352 older women who each had at least two adult children.

The mothers reported whether they experienced symptoms of depression, and shared which adult child she felt closest to emotionally. The women also revealed which child they’d prefer to receive help from if they became sick or disabled.

When considering parental favoritism, the researchers had expected to discover that mothers would be more depressed if the adult child they felt closest to (or expected help from) struggled with serious issues, Pillemer said.

Adult children may feel relieved with the team’s findings, however, if they have felt the sting of not being Mom’s “favorite.”

“If Mom is more emotionally close to one child or another, she is also deeply concerned about what happens to all of her offspring,” Pillemer said.

“Worry is love, or an expression of it,” said the 77-year-old mom of two grown daughters. “It is part of the costs of the real love of a treasured child. Sometimes when I look at my daughters, even in their middle age, I see the little girls they were.”