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Navigating Parent Child Role Reversals

an elderly woman reading with beautiful paintings behind her

On the surface, the transition into a caregiving relationship is a simple one. Underneath, it’s typically layered with conflicting emotions and shifting relationships between family members. Older adults may start to resent feeling like children whose decisions are made for them, while adult children of these parents may not understand how to handle their newfound authority in the caregiving situation.

It’s important to handle this parent-child role reversal with respect on both sides. Learn more about when it’s time to seek care for your parent and start planning ideas for how to maintain a strong connection during this time and beyond.

Signs That Your Aging Parent May Need Help

It’s often best to make a plan for care before the person in question needs a lot of support. This is especially important if your parent currently lives alone. Here are some signs that your parent may need assistance:

  • Experiencing frequent forgetfulness or confusion, such as misplacing necessary items, neglecting daily medications, or forgetting names
  • Struggling with physical limitations when navigating daily life
  • Expressing concern about managing daily tasks such as cooking, cleaning, or running errands
  • Having difficulty keeping up with personal hygiene tasks such as brushing teeth, bathing or showering regularly, and wearing clothing that’s appropriate for the season and temperature
  • Feeling isolated, sad, or anxious

Recognizing these signs early on can be the key to getting your parent assistance when they truly need it. As you approach this sensitive topic, be prepared that they may act irritated or even angry if your well-meaning suggestions come as a surprise. 

It’s best to set aside a time when both you and your parent are calm. You can then outline the things you’ve noticed and ask your parent how they may want to proceed. Be ready with ideas to help move the conversation along. 

Understanding the Role Reversal Relationship

If you find yourself gently coaxing, pleading, or even bribing your parent to complete certain tasks, or you feel overwhelmed when thinking about their safety at home, you may be entering a new stage in your relationship with your parent. This role reversal is actually quite common, and the psychology behind it is simple: the person who once took care of you now depends on you for help. 

However, over time, this role reversal can lead to frustration and resentment for both parties involved. You may find yourself irritated with your parent for refusing to follow instructions. On the other hand, your parent scoffs at the idea of your new authority and tries to assert independence in ways that could be dangerous, such as changing the lightbulbs even though their doctor recommended avoiding household chores.

To better manage the transition from being an adult child to the caretaker of an aging parent, it’s important to communicate with honesty and compassion. Resist the urge to treat your parent like a child and work together to identify areas in which you can help. Caretaking can be physically and emotionally overwhelming, so it’s ideal to have self-care strategies firmly in place. Seek counseling or other support if you feel you need it as well.

Tips for Family Caretakers

If you’re feeling lost at the beginning of your caretaking journey, know that it’s normal. Consider the following tips for bringing order to what probably feels like chaos at the beginning of your caretaking journey.

Create a Care Plan

Does your parent wish to age in place in their home of 50 years? Perhaps a vibrant retirement community is the ideal environment for your parent to thrive. Whether your parent simply needs your help to shop for groceries or wishes to fully transition into retirement living, there are solutions to be found. But first, you need to have a conversation and write down your intentions.

Set Boundaries

While some parents are reluctant to accept help, others have trouble discerning when to stop asking. Take your pre-existing relationship into account and pinpoint where the difficult spots may be. State upfront what you are willing to do and what you may need to hire help for. For example, you may be willing and able to get those groceries, but you don’t have time to mow the entire lawn, clean the house, and cook dinner for your parent every night. 

Have Frequent Conversations

You and your parent can’t read each other’s minds. The caregiving conversation isn’t a one-time occurrence; it’s a topic to be revised every time there is a change (or a need for a change) in the situation. Both you and your parent have needs, and when you take the parent-child role reversal into account, it’s important that you’re honest with each other to avoid hurt feelings. 

Coping With Stress and Burnout

There is a darker side to caretaking that sometimes isn’t addressed: guilt, stress, and burnout. No matter how wonderful your relationship is with your parent, it’s common to experience feelings of anger, boredom, or resentment during a long-term caregiving situation. You may feel guilty for having negative feelings about the situation or even about your parent. When you’re spending all of your time caregiving, you may not even recognize your level of caregiver burnout. If you’re wondering how to cope with aging parents, take stock of your feelings and notice whether you’re experiencing any of the following:

  • Feeling isolated, alone, or helpless
  • Becoming irritated at little things
  • Neglecting your own care, including attending medical appointments and maintaining a nutritious diet
  • Experiencing frequent physical symptoms such as headaches
  • Losing or gaining weight
  • Having trouble sleeping

It’s lonely and stressful to be the only adult child who is caregiving for an aging parent. If you have siblings, a spouse, or even a teen who is willing to pitch in and help, don’t turn them down. Professional help is another option for those who don’t have a large support network. You may look for a counselor who specializes in caregiver burnout or join a support group in your area. Remember that you won’t be able to give care to anyone else if you don’t first care for yourself.

Asking for Help

It may be time to restructure your thinking about your parent’s care. Perhaps you don’t feel equipped to care for your parent alone, or maybe your parent wishes to be more socially active in a community setting but doesn’t have the wide network they are once used to. 

Additionally, you may be facing pressure from your career or your own family life, or you may live too far away to be of any real help. If your parent is unable to navigate daily life with ease and seems frustrated and lonely in their current situation, or you simply can’t provide the level of care your parent needs — it’s time to ask for help.

Get in Touch

Caregiving for an aging parent isn’t easy. In fact, the parent-child role reversal can be one of the most difficult adjustments you can make in your long-term relationship. If you’re feeling lost in your caregiving journey, don’t be afraid to reach out for experienced, compassionate help. We look forward to assisting you and your parent as you move into this next phase of your life.