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Roll Reversal: Should You 'Parent' Your Parent?

Tips When Caring for An Aging Parent

Woman caregiving for elderly parent.

Because of advances in medicine, more and more people are living well into their 90’s. But quality of life isn’t always keeping up—and many older adults have mobility issues, chronic conditions, dementia, and other health problems that mean they need live-in care.

Many adult children make the decision to take care of their elderly parents—either part-time or full-time. But caring for a parent comes with some pitfalls. Often, it comes in the form of 'roll reversal'. When your parent needs significant help to do basic things—even things involve very intimate hygiene-related tasks—it can be tempting to start seeing this as a reversal in roles. 

Video: The Ultimate Role Reversal: Taking care of one's aging parents.


But bear in mind that you are not your parent’s parent. 
True, you might be an important source of financial, physical, and emotional support. But you are not “raising” your parent. When you do fall into this trap it can be tempting to start behaving in an autocratic way—by making decisions about your parent’s life without consulting them, for example.

Always keep lines of communication open and take your parents’ wishes and concerns as seriously as possible, barring serious dementia. In addition, when you’re caring for an elderly parent, it can be difficult to reconcile your memories of this person at a younger stage in their lives with the reality of what they are now.

If your parent has dementia, for example, your relationship to them will change. They may not remember important milestones and memories you once shared, or be able to fulfill the same role in your life and those of your own children as you want them to. This can cause serious distress for anyone in the person’s life, but especially for adult caregivers who spend a lot of time with the elderly parent.

It can be difficult to love a parent with dementia for what they are now instead of expecting and wanting them to go back to what they used to be, but it is essential to try—both for your well-being and theirs. Your parent may have difficulty relinquishing control to you as well—because despite the fact that they are now at least partially dependent on you, their caregiver, they still think of you as a child.

As the caregiver, however, you may need to take control of the family finances and the day-to-day running of the household, among other things. It is essential to have a frank and honest discussion about money, changes to the home to make it safer for an elderly parent with mobility issues, and expectations for the future.

Caring for an elderly parent can be a particular challenge—because of the complexity of the relationship and expectations between parent and child, and how those change as both grow older. Constant communication is important, as well as a change in expectations. Be careful not to see your new relationship as one of parent and child, with you in the parental role.

Keep the lines of communication open and try to be accepting of your parent as they are now, and hopefully caring for them will be a little easier.

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