“Recently I have noticed that Mom is slipping a little — forgetting things that she used to remember easily, wearing clothes that are not clean or do not match, and needing help with her checkbook and bill payments. I want to help but the thought of parenting my parent feels uncomfortable and even a little scary to me. I don’t want to aggravate Mom, but I know I have to start supervising her activities more so that she will stay safe and protected.”
Although the process of children assuming parental roles with their parents has been occurring for most of human history, this fact is not very soothing to people who have to face the issue now. Acknowledging that our parents are declining and becoming more dependent on us for health and safety can be very difficult and stressful. After all, Mom and Dad were always there to care for us and support us through hard times and difficult decisions. How can it be that our “foundation” is disappearing and a role reversal is occurring before our very eyes?
Unfortunately, the transition from being a child to assuming a parental role with parents can be rocky. There are several reasons for this.
o Parents are not often willing to acknowledge that they need help, especially from children they have raised. It can be just as difficult for parents to move into child-like or dependent roles as it is for their children to become more parental with them.
o Unresolved issues and negative emotions from decades ago can often emerge due to the change in relationship from more distant or diffused where parents are more independent and children are managing their own lives to much more intimate where children must supervise the day-to-day activities of their parents.
o Knowing when and how to intervene in the lives of parents can be challenging and frustrating to their children. If children move too slowly to take more responsibility for their parents, harm may occur to their health or safety while moving too quickly can damage the confidence of their parents and encourage dependency when it may not be necessary.
o Children who live long distances from their parents may be unable to provide direct supervision. This creates feelings of guilt in children who do not believe they can do enough and also parents who think their children already have to do too much for them.
There are useful steps that children of aging parents can take to make their transition to parental responsibility more manageable and less stressful. Most senior care experts agree that doing nothing to address emerging care issues will only delay the inevitable for children and may put their parents at risk. Conversely, taking definite and measurable steps to properly identify the needs of parents and instigating appropriate actions or interventions will often help children gain more confidence in their abilities to help their parents. It will also ease anxiety in parents because they will understand what is going to be done to help them and why and reassure them that they will not lose all independence in their lives.
Steps that the children of aging parents can do to help them cope with declining physical and mental abilities and general quality of life are:
o Don’t accept the notion that you are going to parent your parent. Parents have decades of experiences and knowledge and the pride of lifetime accomplishments behind them. It may be helpful to use techniques that you may have used with your children or that you know your parents used with you to redirect behavior. However, treat your parents with respect and as adults who happen to need some help.
o Help your parent focus on the things they can still do well while acknowledging the things they can no longer do without assistance. Find activities or responsibilities that your parent can do safely to maximize her independence and sense of control.
o Try to face any unresolved issues or negative emotions that may be interfering with your ability to help your parent. Talk with your parent about these issues and emotions if you can, or seek the assistance of counseling or a support group to help you manage the emotional discomfort and pain.
o Accurately assess the needs of your parent and identify interventions that address those needs with the least amount of disruption. If you are not sure how to do this, seek the help of professionals such as geriatric care managers or social workers who can diagnose problem areas and recommend appropriate actions.
o If you are unable to assist your parent due to living out of town or having other responsibilities, use the services of an appropriate home care agency that can provide help for your parent while reducing your stress level and concern. Home care agencies come in various forms, ranging from homemaker and companion care services to home health agencies that provide nursing and rehabilitation care. You can choose the service based on the level of care needed by your parent.
A good rule of thumb is to act on your intuition. If you believe your parent has declined to the point of needing extra assistance and supervision, you are probably correct. Also, remember that you are not alone in caring for your aging and declining parent and that there are resources available to help you.
Steve Watson has provided assistance to seniors and their families for over 8 years. He owns a home health agency in Tallahassee, Florida called Comfort Keepers that provides home health and companion care for seniors who want to remain in their own homes and be as independent as possible.
Steve has his PhD from the University of Georgia in Public Administration and Master’s in Counseling from the University of Delaware. He received his certification as a Care Manager with specialization in geriatric issues this year.