Changing Roles with Dignity and Grace

Language like “parenting my aging parent” does more harm than good. So does the behavior. Here are 6 steps to take instead.

Language like “parenting my aging parent” does more harm than good. So does the behavior. Here are 6 steps to take instead.


 

“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:

“Role change.”

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.

Why Words Matter When Caring for Aging Parents

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.

6 Steps To Ease Discomfort That Accompanies Changing Roles

Here are six steps you can take to help ease the discomfort and make the process feel less overwhelming:

  1. Acknowledge that change is hard. Think back to all the times you’ve faced change in your own life: a new job, a new baby, a move to a new city. Change is hard. For all those involved. You can lead a conversation about this with your aging parents by reminiscing about some of those tougher times you’ve been through, and how you got through them successfully.
  2. Allow yourself to feel some discomfort. Recognize the physical sensations and the thoughts discomfort triggers and remind yourself that’s all it is: discomfort. Then ride it out, using techniques like breathing or visualization if you need. Trying to avoid discomfort will only make it grow.
  3. Frame the changes as an opportunity for either you or your elderly parents to master new skills. Perhaps your dad’s stroke has made speech challenging. Now would be the perfect time to get him a gadget like an iPad and teach him to type. He might even enjoy learning to play games and use FaceTime, too. Check out these elderly Thanksgiving activities to do with family.
  4. Use language that empowers your elderly parents rather than blaming them. Consider these two approaches: “I’m concerned that you are not paying your bills properly, and so I’d like to step in to help you with this task” or “I just got a great new program on my computer that helps with paying bills. I’d like to use it to help pay your bills, and we could even review things monthly – in fact, we could make it a monthly outing…. at the deli of your choice.” In using the latter approach, you are not blaming or negatively communicating that your parents aren’t able to do something. Additionally, you have replaced the task of paying bills that you’ve “taken away” with a new task: reviewing the accounting. Importantly, you have also provided some limited choice by asking your mom or dad to choose where you will eat to review the accounting. In doing so, you have empowered them, opening the door to better outcomes.
  5. Be flexible. Just like with any transition, it’s important to keep an open mind and not to remain firmly attached to any particular outcome or plan. Being attached to an issue will only lead to frustration or disappointment, but rolling with the punches can bring pleasant surprises – and help keep the peace
  6. Don’t go it alone. Identify a friend, family member or an Aging Life Care professional you can talk to or confide in – perhaps even learn from. No one is expected to have all the answers. Understanding, supporting and caring for aging parents takes a village. Or a team.

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.

Steven Barlam

Author Steven Barlam

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.

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