“I feel as if I’m parenting my parents.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, you may be bracing yourself to use this phrase often at family gatherings. And to speak about the role reversal your parents’ aging process seems to have brought on, and how you are the adult.
But language such as “role reversal” and “parenting my parents” may be doing more harm than good. It’s time to delete them from our vernacular and replace them with a concept that’s more constructive, and realistic:
In my 30-plus years of work with families and their aging parents, I have seen how counterproductive and even downright harmful it is when the children of elderly parents talk about a reversal of parent-child roles.
Words are potent. Their message can have a lingering effect, one that works its way into the psyche and hearts of those who hear them. For older adults who may be compromised by a physical or mental health condition or struggling with cognitive issues, this effect can be detrimental to well-being. You must first learn how to understand your aging parents.
Think about it. The aging process is filled with losses, both large and small. Retirement is not just a happy ending to a long career: it’s the loss of a job, of a position within society, of a sense of identity. New living arrangements mean saying goodbye to beloved homes where decades of memories are ingrained in the walls. There can also be the poignant loss of physical and mental capabilities, and with it, the loss of ability to participate in favorite hobbies and activities.
Each loss hurts and strips away a layer of how your aging parents perceive themselves.
Language suggesting that your “parents are like children” adds insult to injury. It increases their sense of frustration and helplessness; thus it can trigger troublesome or even confrontational behavior – a natural defense mechanism against the discomfort of being treated as somehow inferior.
That’s why I prefer the term “role change.” And why I believe that using it instead can make a world of difference.
“Role change” is a more honest and accurate reflection of what is happening. After all, your role in your aging parents’ lives is merely evolving and changing, as is theirs in yours. Your parents will always be your parents, just as you will always be their daughter or son.
Of course, change is never easy. It can be downright uncomfortable to find yourself in the position of caring for your aging parents, paying their bills, filling out their tax returns, handling simple repairs in their home or making important decisions for them.
Here are six steps you can take to help ease the discomfort and make the process feel less overwhelming:
As the holidays approach, remember: Change is inevitable. But more than change itself, our reaction to it and even the language that we use can create tensions and misunderstandings. The way we choose to react to change will shape the times we share with those we love.
Keep Reading: How to Understand and Help Your Aging Parents »
Steven Barlam, MSW, LCSW, CMC is the Chief Professional Officer and Co-Founder of LivHOME. Since 1985, Steve has worked exclusively in the field of geriatrics, working directly with clients and their families, and developing innovative service delivery models. He has served as President of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers. Steve is a regular lecturer at local universities and national conferences on topics relating to care management, technology, and patient/client care.