Switching Roles: How to Parent your Parent

One of the strangest, and possibly most heart-breaking, aspects of aging is the role reversal that inevitably happens. As our parents age, they may lose the ability to drive, climb stairs, take care of personal hygiene, or even feed themselves. These changes can come on gradually due to declining health, or occur suddenly as the result of an accident or stroke.

Here are some things to consider when you find yourself in this uncomfortable role.

When You Have Time

If Mom or Dad’s decline is gradual, you have more time to ease the relationship into role reversal. This gives you the space to come to terms with your feelings. Even though your parent is very much alive, seeing them lose their cognitive or physical abilities can be very painful.

Although it can be awkward, you need to talk to your mom or dad about long-term care, finances, and end-of-life wishes. Studies show 75 percent of adults haven’t discussed these things with their parents, and up to a third of people 50 and up haven’t even discussed it with their spouses.

So if you haven’t yet had a conversation, you’re not alone. On the other hand, you should do it as soon as possible, while your parents still have the mental and physical ability to participate. Getting everything down in writing is important, so you and your siblings have a guide to refer back to when necessary.

To learn more, check out our post about advance medical directives.

When You’re the Primary Caregiver

Coaxing mom to eat her dinner, helping dad to the toilet, or reminding him to shower can feel like a nightmarish return to toddlerhood—except the toddlers are your own parents. Being the parental figure in your own parent’s life can be physically taxing and emotionally grueling.

This is especially true if your parents live with you, but even if they don’t, you may find the role reversal unsettling. Keep these things in mind when helping your parents:

  • Maintain respect. Your mom may be embarrassed that she needs help with simple tasks. She may be angry, frustrated, or in pain. Speak respectfully in all situations, and ask for respect from your parents.
  • Set boundaries. Both you and your parent may feel uncomfortable if you have to assist them with bathing or toileting. Having a home care provider for some of the day can help, or consider moving your parent to a long-term care facility.
  • Get support. Turn to your siblings, friends, and community members for help. Consider respite care once or twice a year to get a breather from the demands of parenting your parent.

When the Relationship is Complicated

If you’ve had a fraught relationship with your parent until now, assuming a parenting role can be even more complex. Old unresolved issues will rise to the fore, and every interaction may be charged with tension and resentment.

Counseling can help, and family support becomes even more important. When interacting with Mom or Dad, try to avoid getting into old arguments that lead nowhere. You may need to leave the room or end the conversation if you feel it’s escalating into an argument.

Moving your parent to a skilled nursing facility may also be the best thing for the relationship. When you’re no longer the primary caregiver, you have room to work on repairing the parent-child relationship in a more natural setting.

Leave a Comment