Read all the books you want and watch all your friends have their own kids—you will never really get it until you’re the one doing the 2 a.m. feeding or calling the pediatrician about how, exactly, one might safely extract a Lego from a child’s right nostril.
A similar you-can’t-understand-until-you’ve-been-there rule applies to the often poignant transition from being your parent’s child to being their caregiver.
This kind of role reversal can be deeply emotional, even under the best of circumstances. It’s human nature to want things to stay the same. In general, we aren’t big fans of change, especially unwelcome change. But time stands still for no one, and as parents age someone needs to step up to help.
Navigating a Relationship Reversal
If you are an adult child, perhaps with a family of your own, who is caring for an aging parent, you know how difficult it can be to adjust to a wholly new kind of relationship. It’s hard to realize that your parents—the people who cared for you when you were little, gave you advice throughout your life, and perhaps even mentored you in many ways—now need you in an entirely new way.
Whether an aging parent mainly needs help managing complex legal, financial, and medical matters or needs more consistent assistance for basic day-to-day tasks like cooking, shopping, and household care, it is very hard to have to acknowledge their vulnerability.
It can also trigger a minor panic attack when you start to think about all the additional responsibilities you may potentially need to handle.
The overwhelm is real, and can cause even the most well-intentioned child to default to assuming that they are in charge now. It can seem easier to just take over and handle everything yourself. There’s less back and forth when you decide to just take care of things on your own.
And, if we’re being honest, it minimizes the amount of time you have to spend staring the reality of a parent’s decline in the face.
But in almost all cases, commandeering control—even if you mean well—is not the way to go.
Even though it might be tempting to play out a reversal of the “because I said so” scenario that you hated when you were a kid; what you really want to create is a collaborative partnership, not a dictatorship.
What does this look like?
It looks like mutual respect, consideration and empathy.
It looks like The Golden Rule of treating others as you would have them treat you.
Learning how to inhabit this new role successfully is no walk in the park, and you will definitely have your moments. You’re only human, after all.
Here are a few tips that can help make the whole experience much easier and less stressful:
- Don’t treat your parents like children. Yes, you may feel like you’re stepping into a parental role, but your parents are grown adults who have lived full lives and deserve your respect and patience. Don’t patronize them. Don’t talk about them like they aren’t in the room.
- Really listen. Remember how infuriating and frustrating it was when you were a kid debating with your parents about something, and they just weren’t listening? Don’t make your parents feel that way. They may not ultimately get to have everything the way they want it, but take the time to really listen to what they are saying. Don’t dismiss their concerns or ideas as invalid or not worth hearing.
- Work together as much as possible. Don’t do everything behind the scenes on the assumption that you know best. Involve your parent in every step of the decision-making process. Talk about the options, the pros and cons. Have the hard conversations. And don’t rush through things unless there’s truly an emergency deadline.
- Don’t let your new role define your whole relationship. Remember that you are still a family. Avoid the pitfall of every conversation revolving around caretaking issues. Talk about the things that interest you and your parent. Tell stories. Go out and experience things together—a meal or a movie or a museum.
- Take care of yourself. With all the demands on your time and energy, it’s way too easy to slip into bad habits or neglect your own physical and emotional health. Make healthy choices, make time for activities that bring you joy, and ask for help. Even though it might feel like you’re in this alone, there is always a way to get extra support, whether that means getting some professional counseling for yourself, hiring a home care aide or senior companion, or asking your sibling to take on a few more responsibilities.
Above all, remember that this is a new and sometimes scary journey for all of you. Your parents have never been here before, and neither have you. In addition to the stress of the unknown and the fear—yours and your parent’s—of losing independence, there are layers of grief at play here, too.
Be kind to yourselves and to each other.
Don’t despair if things don’t come together immediately. And don’t give up when you come up against a new road block or challenge (because you will). There will be trial and error. There will be good days and bad days. Try to focus on the love. Try to keep your sense of humor. And, even when it seems impossible, try to cultivate gratitude for every day you have together.
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