Rocking the Roles: How NOT to Parent an Aging Parent

Changing Relationships
As children, part of the process of human development is that we differentiate from our parents. Over time, our independence and authority grows as we mature into adulthood and the once hierarchical parent/child relationship levels out - reaching greater equality. This growth changes the relationship dynamics between parents and children. What it means to be your parent’s child at 9 and what it means to be your parent’s child at 49 looks very different. That being said, we are always our parent’s child. As we are living longer and longer, the time period when adult children have a relationship with aging parents is expanding and the dynamics of the relationship are shifting once again. For some of the 65 million Americans taking on caregiving responsibilities, this experience is sometimes expressed as a role reversal where the adult child becomes the parent of their parents. As we move into caregiving roles and support a generation in aging well, it is critical that we exam the way we think about this change and understand the shifting roles while preserving dignity and respect.  

Compassion & Equality
It is common to look to our parents as an archetype of safety, consistency and support. At an early age, we clearly understand the role they play. As our parents age, we are often forced to see with different eyes and notice that our parents are real people with needs, vulnerabilities, challenges, and differences. A diagnosis or a medical event, like a fall or stroke, can seemingly change the dynamics and needs of the relationship instantly. In other cases the increased needs may happen in a more gradual process over a longer period of time. In either case, we must remember that helping our aging parents face their challenges, offering support, and even stepping into the role of caregiver is never the same as parenting. An adult child doesn’t assume the top of the hierarchical relationship suddenly because an aging parent’s needs increase. In the words of Pema Chodron, “Compassion is not a relationship between a healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals…compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”   

Collaboration & Listening
Eldercare planning works best as a collaborative process that includes the adult children and other family as well as the aging adult. As caregivers and family, it is important to remember that even our authority to take action with a durable power of attorney is given to us by a parent, which is their choice. The more we understand ourselves as being invited into the challenges to collaborate in the solution, the more we can acknowledge and see the choices of our aging loved ones. Here are a few questions to help bridge the gap between the generations and support an atmosphere of listening and collaboration around eldercare planning:

  • What are your expectations of the outcome and the process of eldercare planning?
  • What do you fear the most in this situation? 
  • What do you feel responsible for in this situation?
  • What is at stake for you in this situation?
  • What are your goals and hopes for yourself?  

Each family member may have very different answers to these questions and understanding the assumptions of the others is the first step to being able to respect differences. When the energy of the family is spent in opposing and fighting one another, the momentum is lost, solutions suffer and aging adults can often feel sidelined in the conflict. When family members actively listen to others and are listened to in return, they can move the conversation forward and help the family become unstuck.

More Than One Way
Especially in a complex situation like eldercare, there are rarely black and white answers or right and wrong decisions. We make decisions in a particular context with the information we have at the time and we choose from a wide spectrum of options rather than dualistic choices that are decidedly good or bad. One person’s solution to a situation may be very different from another person’s solution. This is completly natural. Even as we age, we have a right to face our multi-faceted choices, to make mistakes, to draw on our experience and shape the life we want for ourselves.

One of the ways that we show respect for aging adults is that we honor their ability to face their challenges and learn from their experiences. Does this mean that we completely step back when people are vulnerable? No, but our involvement and support has to have the foundation of respect for another person’s ability to choose. How we speak to one another and the tone we use is one of the greatest insights into the role we believe we are playing in the situation. When we believe we are now the parent of an aging parent, we can catch ourselves talking down to our loved ones or even barking directions with the expectation that they will follow our commands simply because we said so. This strategy is not only exhausting, it’s ineffective. The weight of responsibility can be great for adult children. We care about our parents and want to make sure they are cared for and live well. Even those adult children that have a strained relationship with their parents will often have a fierce commitment and responsibility to care for their parents in old age. So, how do we recalibrate our understanding of this shift in our relationship and roles?  

Partner Not Parent
The words partner and parent may contain the same letters, but their meanings are significantly different. The term partner is a person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others, especially in an environment with shared risks and gains. It also has another meaning in nautical terminology. The partner is a timber framework secured to strengthen the deck of a wooden ship around the hole for the mast, which is critical for navigation and propulsion. This is the perfect image to illustrate the role of adult children in eldercare. We have the crucial role of respecting and protecting the aspects of our parents’ lives that allow them to direct and move their life, so they can safely take the journey they want.

A Guide for the Journey: Care Management 
This is no easy task. We are invested in the process and we care about the outcome. If you and your aging loved ones have embarked on the eldercare journey, consulting with a professional Geriatric Care Manager can be an incredible asset. RNs and MSWs are able to navigate the waters of eldercare and help aging adults shape and make the journey safely. At Sound Options, our integrated team of Care Managers and caregivers are able to provide the day-to-day care within the home and the oversight and care coordination to help aging adults and their families have a high quality of life in their later years. Call the experts in eldercare today and start getting the answers and support you need to navigate the family dynamics and choices ahead. 800.628.7649.  

Published on January 4, 2016.