Monday, May 27, 2024

Role Reversal with an Aging Parent

Elderly mother with adult daughter

 Role Reversal

We often hear how hard it is for caregivers and seniors to deal with the idea of an adult child “parenting” his or her aging parent. This idea has taken on a life of its own and has become so cliché that we all sort of accept that a daughter or son will start becoming a parent to his or her parent.  But, is “role-reversal” real?

While relationships between parents and children clearly change over time, there is no such thing as a “reversal.” For one thing, unless specific powers of attorney, etc. are granted, we do not actually have any legal responsibility for our parents in the same way that parents have legal obligations to children. Likewise, adult children have no automatic authority over aging parents. Aging parents, unless deemed mentally incapacitated, have all the legal rights and responsibilities as anyone else – quite unlike children.

That doesn’t mean that things stay the same. Ideally, by adulthood, most of us “children” have grown up enough that we are on some kind of level playing field with our parents by our early 20’s! This means that parents and children should ideally honor and respect each other in the same way they would their own peers. In a healthy parent/adult-child relationship, no one feels obligated to fulfill basic adult obligations for each other. When our parents age, mutual respect and honor should remain – with no one feeling “parental.”

Declining Parents

Aging, however, comes with some declines that make this mutual “peer” relationship difficult; and, the reality is, our parents may need us in ways that are very new to us. These changes bring some challenges and dilemas such as:

  • A parent’s denial over a physical or mental limitation versus your concern
  • Independence versus the need to have help
  • Privacy versus the need to check in

The key to handling these changes is acceptance and honesty on both sides and good communication. The adult child needs to be able to speak honestly and frankly about the concerns he or she has related to the parent’s health or situation. The senior needs to accept new limitations as they come, and be able to ask honestly and clearly for help when needed.  Sometimes, the best thing to do is to assess the situation together or look for warning signs to determine if more help is needed, because sometimes, both parent and child do not notice the gradual changes taking place.

An adult child’s role, therefore, is not to “parent” the parent – but rather, to help the parent deal effectively with the changes that age brings. The parent’s role is not to become dependent, but rather to take full responsibility for himself or herself by acknowledging when help is needed and being able to ask for that help.

These things are easier said than done, of course. And no amount of understanding will make it easier to maneuver this fine line between having a good relationship with someone who is declining and becoming “parental.” Obviously, when there are extreme mental limitations, it is very difficult to not become parental – but if your parent is functioning cognitively, there is not a real reason to take on a parenting role.

Signs of Unhealthy Role Reversal

  1. You find yourself trying to make the person feel guilty by saying (or thinking) things like “after all I have done for you…..”
  2. You make judgmental or critical comments all the time to the senior like “why can’t you move faster?”
  3. You make patronizing remarks like “now let’s eat our food dear….”
  4. You limit information that your parent has every right to know about because you think he or she cannot handle it - like her diagnosis or her financial situation
  5. You make decisions for your parent without consulting him or her first

Again, some of these things may make sense if there are serious cognitive or emotional problems with your parent.  But, if you simply have an aging parent with physical limitations, there are few, if any, valid reasons for hiding information or becoming patronizing.

Some signs that you are still in an unhealthy “child” role with an aging parent:

  1. You feel guilty if you are not doing what they want you to do
  2. You feel incapable of saying no to requests
  3. You feel controlled and judged
  4. You are not taking responsibility for your own finances or other adult responsibilities

It is important to remember that if you have not established a healthy peer or same-adult-level relationship with your parent thus far, it will not get better as he or she ages.   Consider what you need to do to fully seperate as an adult and take full responsibility for your choices and your own life.  One area many people get stuck in is approval.  If you are still making decisions related to your parents to garner their approval, you have not fully seperated in a healthy way.  We all want to be liked and approved of - but if you find yourself making certain types of decisions only because you cannot bear the disapproval of a parent, it is time to become more independent and take full responsibility for your own affairs.

Establishing Healthy Roles with an Aging Parent

  1. Have honest and respectful conversations with one another
  2. Meet your own needs and say “no” in order to protect priorities you each have
  3. Have a deep respect and realistic trust in one another
  4. Ask for help from each other and from others
  5. Take good care of yourselves
  6. Avoid secrets and guilt trips

All relationships change over time. The key is to acknowledge the changes and adapt. The best attitudes to have to help with this process are acceptance, honesty, and faith in one another. If you start to feel strain about how you are relating to an aging parent, it may be wise to talk with others about it. Your siblings may be a great resource as they may have similar concerns; but sometimes, a person outside of the family - like a friend or a counselor - can help sort out where your boundaries should be.

Advice for Approaching Role Reversal:

“Never do something for someone that he can and should be doing for himself.” 

Many times we step in out of a desire to help. But, really, a person stays stronger if we allow him to do as much as he can for himself. When he can’t do it – we can step in or we can ask or pay others to help.  It is important for caregivers to manage stress.  With some perspective, we can adapt our role with our parents without getting into an unhealthy, "parental" relationship as they age.


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