Aging Parents: When the Parent Becomes the Child

I see so many people in my office who spend more years caring for their elderly parents than they spent raising their own children. This is becoming more and more commonplace as advances in medical science continue to extend the lives of Baby Boomers.

Aging parents are all different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with every parent. However, from a “coping” point-of-view, I’ve come up with 7 basic strategies a grown child can employ to keep his or her sanity while still providing loving care to a parent or parents.

  1. Accept that aging is a part of life. Avoid saying things to yourself like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” Or: “I wish my parents didn’t get old.” Instead of looking at it as a burden, try to view it as an opportunity for a new kind of relationship. Older people are not just a burden. They have a perspective on life that goes back a lot further than yours. Things can be learned from that perspective.
  2. Be clear with yourself about what you’re able and willing to do for your older parent. If you’re prepared to have your aging mother or father live with you, that’s fine. But don’t think this is your obligation. Other options do exist. Weigh those options carefully and be at ease with the one that you choose. If you’re uncomfortable, your parent will sense it.
  3. Don’t overcompensate. If you feel guilty for not being available enough, then you’ll overcompensate in inappropriate ways. You’ll do favors that aren’t reasonable or realistic. You’ll be late for work. You’ll give up your own relaxation time. Your guilty fawning will turn your elderly parent into a brat! And you will become angry and resentful. Many take it out on their parents, so nobody benefits from this supposed “sacrifice.”
  4. Replace guilt and stress with rational self-talk. For example: “Aging is a natural part of life. It is what it is. Under these circumstances, no living situation will be perfect or will please everyone — and that’s OK.” Keep perspective!
  5. Share responsibility if possible. This is particularly important if you’re still raising children or have a job to manage. If you have siblings, hold regular meetings to discuss what makes most sense for each to do. Some people hate being chauffeurs, while others are fine with it. Some people are happy to sit and chat with an older person, while others get impatient after five minutes. Assign responsibility based on what makes most sense for each family member to do. If possible, hire outside help.
  6. We all need and want our space. It’s important to set — and remember — your boundaries. Gently enforce them by being willing to say, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to do that for you right now.” This actually puts most parents at ease. Most elderly people are sensitive to not feeling that they’re burdens. If they know they can count on you to sometimes say no, it will make them more at ease when you say yes, because they’ll know you mean it!
  7. Get used to making decisions for your parents. Give them as much choice as you can, but when it’s something big, don’t fret over having to disappoint them. It’s up to YOU to be consistent and do what you know you have to do, without feeling wishy-washy or guilty. Somebody has to be in charge.

Life is sometimes about role reversals. Probably the ultimate role reversal is when your aging parent who once took care of you now needs your care. Just as mommy or daddy once led the way for you, it’s now your turn to do the same for them. In order to be the best that you can be for your aging parent(s), it’s supremely important that you also take care of yourself in the process.