When parenting roles reverse



Although it is difficult to find our parent-child roles reversing, this new time of life can bring blessing and insight. © Thinkstock

I couldn’t stop the tears that rolled down my cheeks as I drove away from my parent’s house. No longer able to deny the effects of Mom’s dementia, I didn’t know how to cope. I watched Mom’s confusion as she looked for the bathroom in her own home and put toilet paper in the freezer. I didn’t know how to answer when she asked where her four little girls were (me and my sisters of years past). Anger gripped me. Who’s to blame for this horrible disease? Why did this happen? Where is the mom who raised me?

As Mom’s behavior deteriorated, our parenting roles reversed. I watched her struggle with everyday chores and began to help her with cooking, laundry and grocery shopping. I applied her makeup and redirected her behavior when she spun out of control, imagining her doing the same for me as a young child. Fragile emotions spilled out as I walked in unfamiliar territory. I wanted an instruction manual on how to move from the daughter role I’d played for 50+ years to a caregiving role, but there wasn’t one.

As our parents age, it’s not unusual to begin a new role, particularly in the midst of illness. The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that 65.7 million caregivers make up 29 percent of the U.S. adult population providing care to someone who is ill, disabled or aged (https://caregiver.org/selected-caregiver-statistics). Understanding how to move into a caregiver role and balance it with parenting responsibilities presents unique challenges. Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.

Recognize your limitations. Assuming the responsibility of a full-time caregiver role to an aging parent while parenting your own children can lead to stress and burnout. Mindful of your own family’s needs, determine a realistic plan. As my mom’s needs increased, our youngest son moved into his teen years. My parents live out-of-state so I established a schedule with my husband to include two days at my parent’s house every other week. My routine allowed enough time to perform much-needed tasks for Mom without neglecting extended periods with our son.

Say good-bye to the parent who raised you. Diagnoses that affect the brain such as dementia, Parkinson’s or a stroke often create devastating changes to personalities. Recognizing the need to grieve the loss of a changed relationship opens the door to healthy interaction as new personalities emerge.

Recognizing the need to grieve the loss of a changed relationship opens the door to healthy interaction as new personalities emerge.

Accept changes you can’t control. When I quit expecting Mom to be the Mom of my childhood, I more easily accepted the changes I couldn’t control. As she moved from the parent to the child, I let go of expectations of the past. I made an intentional choice to open my mind to Mom’s new emotions, changing behavior and different mannerisms. I processed raw emotions with my sisters, educated myself on dementia and joined an online support group to help cope with the changing dynamics in our relationship.

Live one day at a time. Mom’s dementia will not have a happy ending. When I project details of the future, I experience anxiety, insecurity and fear. But, I’ve learned to accept the good days and the bad without focusing on what lies ahead. I don’t always do it perfectly, but when I live one day at a time, I enjoy the beauty of Mom’s laughter, the twinkle in her eye when she remembers my name and the momentary pleasure of a meaningful conversation as Mom reminisces her childhood memories.

Solicit support. Providing care for an aging parent requires time, energy and perseverance. Sharing the burden with others helps. I’m thankful for three sisters who also care deeply for my parents and want to participate in caregiving. Not everyone shares that privilege. Finding support through caregiver groups, local community activities and others walking the same journey helps ease the tension and exhaustion that accompanies caregiving responsibilities.

Include grandchildren in caregiving roles. Children don’t have to be shielded from aging parents. Asking older children to help with meals, laundry or errands moves them away from self-centered behavior and teaches them compassion for others. My sister’s children live in the same town with my parents and regularly help with cooking, cleaning or simply companionship on hard days. Grandchildren create lasting memories through routine tasks and meaningful conversation with grandparents.

Find gratitude for the parent now in your life. As personalities change, new characteristics emerge. Mom’s private demeanor of the past has been replaced with a transparent and sensitive spirit. Deeper relationships develop as she easily expresses her needs and asks for help, embracing gestures of kindness with love and appreciation. Although no longer the mom of my past, I love her just the same.

Aging parents create new challenges when parenting roles reverse. An already overwhelmed schedule with our own children can prevent us from assuming a caregiver role. But life is a gift that can be taken away with little notice. As I watch Mom’s last season quickly drawing to a close, I want to show honor and gratitude as often as possible, creating special moments in the process, without regrets in the end.

GAYLA GRACE, from Louisiana, writes, speaks and coaches on parenting and stepfamily issues. She also enjoys helping her mom in a part-time caregiving role.

Caregiver Resources:

“Hope for the Caregiver: Encouraging Words to Strengthen Your Spirit” by Peter Rosenberger
“Creating Moments of Joy for the Person with Alzheimer’s or Dementia: A Journal for Caregivers” by Jolene Brackey
“Caregivers Handbook” by DK Publishing
Family Caregiver Alliance: National Center on Caregiving
AARP Caregiving Resource Center
Caring For You as You Care


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