Role Reversal: The Emotional Impact of Caring for a Parent


Role Reversal: The Emotional Impact of Adult Children Caring for Aging Parents 

When an adult child begins to care for a parent, this role reversal has a deep impact for both parties. No matter the family, every parent-child relationship is complex in its own way with its own unique history. When you layer in new needs on top of that relationship it ushers in an emotionally terse time. For many families, it is a doorway of reconciliation that adult children walk through unexpectedly. For others, the experience of caring for an aging parent is a gesture of gratitude, a returned favor. For others still, the instinctive responsibility to care for a parent remains throughout their life, even if parents continue patterns of abuse and negative behavior.  While the dynamics of the relationship remain varied, the thread that ties adult child and aging parents together remains powerful.

One of the most difficult shifts that adult children experience as they begin to care is their images of their parents change. The person who was once strong is now weak, the provider now needs to be cared for, the protector is now vulnerable, and the independent Midwestern man now needs help around the house. It is in our human nature to want relationships to stay the same, but in the wise words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “when you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is an impossibility. And yet this is exactly what most of us demand…The only real security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.”

Among the most difficult dynamics in this new relationship is how to provide guidance and a safe environment while trying to respect your parents' own power and independence. When it comes to making decisions like taking the keys away, managing medications, good nutrition, or home safety, it can feel patronizing and disrespectful to even bring it up, let alone intervene in the situation. Here are a few important tips for navigating your way through:  

  • Strive to involve your parent as much as possible in decision-making by laying out the options to choose from among. You are much more likely to have by-in when your parent(s) play a large role in shaping the solutions. Be sure to write down solutions and decisions so everyone is on the same page and can refer back to the document.  
  • Create a checklist for difficult conversations that need to be addressed and set up family meetings to discuss them together. Ideally, this should happen long before the answers are needed. Be sure to include on your list: Durable Power of Attorney, Living Will, Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment and other End-of-Life Wishes.
  • Listen and validate at all times. Making a space for your parents to talk about their fears, concerns, feelings and wishes is so important to keeping communication open. Processing the changing dynamic is a healthy way to proceed forward. Don’t be afraid to ask questions as well such as, “I just want to be here to support you mom. How can I help? “or, “What role would you like me to play in this dad?”
  • Look for compromises and seek professional guidance and help when it’s needed. Many times a neutral third party such as a professional Geriatric Care Manager can provide the peace, knowledge, and guidance needed to move the situation forward.  

Above all, it is important that you not neglect your own health and well-being when managing the care of a parent. Remember to:

  • Seek professional counseling to help you process the changes and manage the grief and stress associated with it.
  • Build healthy choices into your daily patterns including eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising at least 30 minutes 5 times a week. Family caregivers who are working and providing care for a parent are considerably more likely to have chronic illnesses and poor health themselves.
  • Ask for help. Ask for help. Ask for help. Do not try and do it on your own. Rely on friends, family, and professionals and delegate as much as possible. Keep a list of little things that you need done by the phone so if a friend asks if there is anything they can do to help, you have an answer instead of responding with the usual, “No, I’m fine.”
  • Take time to laugh and relieve stress. This will help you stay cool in frustrating situations or heated discussions. To end with more wise words from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “Don’t wish me happiness. I don’t expect to be happy all the time…It’s gotten beyond that somehow. Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humor. I will need them all.” 

Published on June 27, 2013.