When parenting roles reverse: the art of caregiving



Helping with the routine chores and tasks a parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s could formerly do for themselves can be challenging. ©Adobe Stock

I watched Mom’s confusion, a knot forming in my stomach, as she stared at me blankly and looked for the bathroom in her own home. I didn’t know how to answer when she asked where her four little girls were (me and my sisters of years’ past). Who’s to blame for this horrible disease? Why did this happen? Where is the mom who raised me? I couldn’t deny the strangling grip of Alzheimer’s.

As I watched Mom struggle with everyday chores, I began to help with the cooking, laundry and grocery shopping. I applied her makeup and redirected her behavior when she spun out of control, envisioning 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 my daughter role of 50+ years to a caregiver’s role.

As our parents age, it’s not unusual for roles to reverse, particularly in the midst of illness. The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that approximately 44 million caregivers provided unpaid care in the last 12 months (https://www.caregiver.org/caregiver-statistics-demographics). Understanding how to move into a caregiver role and balance it with parenting responsibilities presents a unique challenge. Here are a few tips to help.

Recognize your limitations. Determine a realistic plan, mindful of your own family’s needs and responsibilities. I established a schedule with my husband to include two days at my parents’ who live out-of-town, every other week. My routine allowed time to perform much-needed tasks for Mom without neglecting our teenage 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.

I made an intentional choice to open my mind to Mom’s new emotions, changing behavior and different mannerisms, no longer expecting the Mom of my childhood. 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, fear creeps in. 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 of childhood memories.

When I project details of the future, fear creeps in. I’ve learned to accept the good days and the bad without focusing on what lies ahead.

Find support. Sharing the burden with others helps. I’m thankful for three sisters who also want to help with Mom’s caregiving, but 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. Look out for your own needs as well.

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 teaches them compassion for others. My sister’s children 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 she is 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 writes, speaks and coaches on parenting and stepfamily issues and enjoys caregiving for her mom as often as possible.

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: www.caregiver.org/national-center-caregiving
  • AARP Caregiving Resource Center: www.aarp.org/homefamily/caregiving/
  • Caring For You as You Care:  www.caregiving.com




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