As our society ages, the children of older parents are faced with the fact that they may have to care for Mom, Dad, or both as they enter their later years, which reverses the traditional parent/child roles each has known all or most of their lives.
Caregivers often face other challenges when parenting an aging parent, such as having to step in and advise them when to take medication, when to purge expired food, or even when to take away the car keys. This role reversal is sometimes shocking to both the children and the parents and can result in friction. The parents have been adults for decades now and may resent their child making decisions for them, while the child can sometimes find it hard to “parent” their parent.
Adult children should consider several things before making the decision to care for their aging parents in their home:
Keep the lines of communication open
Older parents may find it difficult and embarrassing to ask for assistance from their own children. What once was a simple task is no longer easy, and the frustration in the inability to manage the chore can make the parent angry or depressed. At other times, the parent may not remember to take their medication, or they refuse to take it because they are upset at being told to do so. In these cases, the adult children need to take some time to explain why these things are necessary.
For example, explaining calmly to the parent that they could injure themselves in the bath without assistance or that their medication needs to be taken so they can continue to spend time with their loved ones can avoid hurt feelings and put the onus on the parent to take responsibility for their own actions.
Allow yourself to “mourn” the loss of the traditional roles
While the parent has not passed away, their role as the elder leader has diminished. This can cause a sense of loss in the adult child that is as strong as the loss of a parent. Take time to mourn the role reversal and allow yourself to grieve in the process. Seek out other adult children who are experiencing the same changes in their relationships with their parents and discuss these feelings of loss and chaos.
Adult children who care for their parents should maintain relationships with others who are in similar situations. Finding a support group or even another family who understands how difficult it is to transition from the role of child to “parent” helps. Offering each other advice and tips on care can ease the burden of such a major change.
Family caregivers should also set time aside for themselves. Asking another family member or hiring a professional caregiver to come in on occasion gives the adult child time for self-care. Sometimes recharging one’s batteries is necessary for good mental health.
Don’t set unreasonable expectations
Because many adult children are new in their roles as caregiver, they may not realize that some of the frustration they feel and the disappointment they see in their parents are because they have set their expectations too high. Realize that the parent is no longer mobile and may have aging issues that have reduced their ability to make even minor decisions and adjust accordingly. Consult the parent’s doctors to determine the limits of their abilities and recognize that sometimes letting go also applies to one’s own expectations.
Another thing to remember is that your parent is not a child. Don’t give them orders unless their life is in danger. If possible, include them in any decision-making.
If there are tasks that the adult child or the parent is uncomfortable performing together, like bathing, for example, it may be time to seek outside help just for those chores. If that is not an option, many senior groups and community organizations provide training and tips on how to overcome embarrassments that arise when the adult child must assist in the bathroom.
Also, remember that order and routine are comforting to people who are undergoing big changes in their lives. Setting a daily schedule and keeping to it as much as possible will help in the transition. The parent knows what to expect and the adult child can prepare for daily events.
Parenting an aging parent is sometimes part of the aging process. If an adult child decides he or she must become a parent’s caregiver, spending time educating themselves about the resources they will need makes the transition smoother. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Caregiving for a parent is certainly a challenge, but it can also be joyful. Time spent together and building a bond over new roles can strengthen the parent/child relationship for years to come.