Role reversal a common feeling in caregivers

By Wendy Johnstone
September 11, 2014

“I feel like I’m the parent now and my mother is the child.” It’s a statement I hear by many a worried and stressed out caregiver caring for an ailing parent.

When my father had his first of three strokes, a defining moment in how he was cared for is forever etched in memory. We were having a family dinner and, wanting to be helpful, I took the liberty to cut dad’s meat in small pieces so he wouldn’t have to struggle with one hand.

Furious, he said, “Parents cut up their food for children, not the other way around. You have no idea what it’s like to walk in my shoes so don’t assume you know what brand and style are best for my feet.”

Too often, as adult children, we make assumptions and overlook a critical notion; we have no idea what it’s like to be old.

As adults we set our own agenda, one that doesn’t always include caring for an aging parent.

When confronted by an aging loved one’s physical and/or cognitive decline, our role as child changes and ready or not, we are faced with new responsibilities. It’s easy to mistake this transition into caregiving as a “role reversal.”

Adult caregivers often find themselves in uncharted waters; supporting a parent with tough financial, health care and end-of-life decisions, assisting with chores, dealing with memory loss or helping with bathing, dressing and feeding.

Aging loved ones, on the other hand, have their own agenda.

They struggle to cope with staggering losses — chronic illness or dementia, reduced mobility, dwindling peer group as siblings and friends die, a change in work or family role and sometimes, the loss of a family home.

Acutely aware of their limitations, our elders do their best from slipping off the rope by tying a knot and hanging on to what they have: independence and control.

At the same time, many aging loved ones are looking backwards, trying to make sense and meaning of their lives and what future generations will remember them by.

This difference in agendas can sometimes produce difficult communication styles.

As adult children try to push their agendas forward, many are confronted with a parent expressing negative communication and behaviour.

Adult children might mistake this communication style as a decline in a parent’s abilities.

Adult children may fall into a “parenting trap” by trying to make decisions or convincing a parent to accept more help.

Concerns about your parent’s well-being and safety are likely legitimate and should be taken seriously. But don’t wait for your song to play.

Be prepared to dance to your parent’s tune.

Let your agenda go and let them take the lead.

Honour your aging loved one’s wisdom and insights and waltz towards a more purposeful connection and meaningful relationship.

Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Solutions. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Friday.

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