Aging Parents of Adult Children With “Hidden Handicaps”


Dr. Richard Selznick~Learning disabilities and ADHD are often called “hidden handicaps.” Different from to more obvious congenital disabilities such as Down ’s syndrome which are identified at birth, many people go through their lives without proper identification or understanding. For aging parents, this can create real dilemmas and challenges.

Jason, Adult Child With Chronic Issues

Take Jason, a 48 year old living with one surviving parent, Fred, age 75. Jason came of age when special education was barely in its infancy in public school. Jason never had a formal evaluation or diagnosis. Never receiving appropriate supports Jason floundered every year, effectively being passed along.

Since finishing high school, Jason struggled to “find himself”, unlike his older siblings who went to graduate school and who were living as professionals raising families away from home.

Jason has many of the chronic issues that can plague adults with ADHD learning disabilities. Some of the ones that greatly impact upon him are the following:

  • Difficulty sustaining a focus when feeling bored.
  • Poor time management – not showing up on time.
  • Makes many “careless” mistakes.
  • Doesn’t assess consequences or “cause and effect” readily.
  • Highly distractible.

Jason has never been able to hold down a job. It was his father’s hope that possibly Jason could take over the small family business that he tried to absorb Jason into over the years. However, Jason’s increasing alcohol and marijuana use, in addition to the ADHD/LD issues mentioned, ultimately undermined him.

To compound matters, Jason has alienated himself with his siblings and their spouses, so the supports that may have come from them were minimal at best.

Like many men from a bygone era, Jason’s father, Frederick, never faced any realities about Jason’s circumstances. In other words, he swept problems under the rug and didn’t deal with them. Time went on.

Frederick knew that Jason lacked fundamental independence, so he kept giving him hand-outs, much of which went to support Jason’s self-destructive lifestyle.

Aging Parents – the Challenge

Aging parents who have adult children like Jason who have hidden handicaps face very tough challenges. Recognizing that each family system and dynamics are different and unique, the following suggestions are offered as a guideline:

Face realities. This may be easier said than done, but it is important to have as open a conversation as possible with key family members about the adult of concern. There may need to be many conversations.

Don’t leave person out. There is a tendency to sometimes talk behind the back of the person of concern. While some “back room” discussion may be necessary, including the adult child in the conversation is encouraged.

Address Trust/Financial Arrangements. Lawyers should be consulted to discuss possible trust arrangements that will be made upon the adult’s passing.

In addition, conversations with the family about financial arrangements need to be held, recognizing that such a conversation can be very difficult and one that is fraught with danger.

Some common questions include:

Are potential proceeds going to be divided evenly among the siblings? Should the one that has the disability, such as Jason, receive a greater share? How will Jason’s money be managed if he can’t manage it himself?

These are just a few of the many questions that will need to be considered.

Living Arrangements. Similar to the above questions, what are the living arrangements that will be made for the adult of concern upon the passing of his parent(s)? Again, depending upon the unique family situation this may be a very challenging topic to resolve.

In summary, while learning disabilities and ADHD are quite common and often do not preclude someone from having a productive, independent life, many adults with these “hidden handicaps” struggle greatly with day-to-day functioning.

As parents age, they face very tough challenges if they have adult children who lack fundamental independent living skills. Having as open a conversation as possible about the tougher issues is strongly recommended. Having the conversations as early as possible would help to get everyone on the “same page” to the extent possible.

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About Dr. Richard Selznick

Dr. Richard Selznick is a psychologist, nationally certified school psychologist, assistant professor of pediatrics and school consultant. Dr. Selznick is the Director of the Cooper Learning Center, a Division of the Department of Pediatrics/ Cooper University Healthcare. The author of two books, The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child and the more recently published School Struggles: A Guide To Your Shut-Down Learner’s Success, Dr. Selznick has presented to parents and educators internationally, as far as Dubai and Abu Dhabi and throughout the United States. Learn more about Dr. Selznick at

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