Aging Parents : When Roles Reverse

How to care for elderly parents is a growing concern for families. Most of us avoid thinking that someday one or both parents won’t be self-sufficient.  As a result, most families are unprepared to handle parents’ changing needs.  Caring for elderly parents involves changes emotionally, physically, socially and financially.  Shifting roles, responsibilities and feelings within the family can be complicated and confusing.  Coping with changes in a healthy way is critical to the quality of your family relationships.  Care giving often involves thorny decisions that merit thought and discussion.  Avoid jumping into radical changes, like having your parent move in with you, because you feel guilty or pressured, or as a “quick fix”.  Stay realistic about your own abilities, desires and limitations, as well as those of other family members.   Here are some ways to help plan for the part you might play:

Talk with your parents: To the extent possible, talk with elderly parents gently and honestly about their wishes, abilities, and options.  Share your own feelings, and reassure them you can be depended upon to help them solve their problems.

Look for “natural” opportunities to talk.  Talking with parents about the future may not be easy, especially if you and your parents have avoided frank discussion of emotion-laden issues in the past.  If a parent voices, “When I die…” encourage discussion.  Other natural times may be when an older friend suffers a health crisis, enters a nursing home, or moves to the home of an adult son or daughter.

Discuss “what ifs” before a crisis develops.  Ask your parents what their wishes would be if they no longer could manage on their own or live at home.  Ideally, parents take control of their own situations and make decisions in advance of an emergency. 

Help parents retain whatever control is possible in making their own decisions   Respect and try to honor their wishes whenever possible.

Encourage small steps in the changes that will happen as your parent can more easily adapt.  Elderly people tend to be fearful of change.

Listen with your full attention.  Listening is an important part of caring. Listen to your parents.  You may be one of the few who do.

Educate yourself on legal, financial and medical matters that pertain to your parent as background for your conversations.

Respect your own needs. Be honest with your parents about your time and energy limits.Watch for signs of stress and burnout in yourself.  Stress of caring for an aging parent, finding the proper resources, learning to effectively deal with the issues that arise—all take a toll on body and mind.  Stresses from your new role may threaten your own health, job, marriage, financial security, and relationships with children.  Symptoms of stress may include depression, fatigue, poor concentration, and hostility, and flagging self-esteem— even physical illness.

Don’t put it off.  If you’re dodging serious conversations to avoid conflict or awkwardness, both parent and adult child may lose an opportunity for closeness, understanding, and optimum peace of mind. Often these conversations equip you for making decisions later if your parent cannot.

Consider these websites: 

And these books:
The Caregiver’s Survival Handbook—How to Care for your Aging Parent without Losing Yourself

When Roles Reverse: A Guide to Parenting Your Parent

Coping with Your Difficult Older Parent: A Guide for Stressed-Out Children

For further guidance: The mental health professionals at Alabama Psychotherapy & Wellness Center can be helpful to you and your aging parents in negotiating this new path.