Decades ago, it was a comforting, loving feeling to know mom and/or dad provided for our basic physical and emotional needs. Cooking a favorite meal, supplying comfort when life seemed difficult, offering guidance when choices were confusing, and even doling out chores that simply needed to be done. Now, more and more adult children find themselves reversing roles as they face the challenges of caring for aging parents.
Have you cooked a meal for an elderly parent, just to be scolded for doing it wrong; or tried giving advice about finances? How about the seemingly simple task of helping clean up years of built-up clutter?
Caring for aging parents can present not only obstacles, but even out-and-out resistance and resentment—from parents and adult children alike. While helping parents has rewarding moments, it is also chock-full of pitfalls, bafflement, and moments of second-guessing decisions made on their behalf. Is it easy? No. Are thousands of other adult children facing similar daily challenges? Yes.
Treat Aging Parents with Respect
“The best advice I can give to adult children of aging parents is to realize that they will be in the same position one day”, says Kathy Dawson, a relationship coach in Cleveland. “It comes up fast! So approach them with compassion and patience.”
Dawson, who teaches communication skills to help improve her clients’ relationships, advises treating aging parents with the same dignity with which they will want to be treated some day.
Dr. Margaret Paul adds that aging is both difficult and scary for many. “It is, as they say, ‘Not for the feint-hearted.’ Aging parents need kindness and compassion, so if you have old anger and resentments toward your parents for how they raised you, it would be a good time to resolve these,” says Paul, bestselling author, popular Huffington Post writer, and co-creator of the Inner Bonding self-healing process, and the related SelfQuest self-healing software program. “The more you learn to love and value yourself, the more you will be able to genuinely forgive your parents and have compassion for their challenges.”
Financial Discussions Sometimes Awkward for All
Even if you, the adult child, hold neither anger nor resentment toward your parents, there still will be situations that require treading lightly. Financial discussions are often difficult to initiate, particularly if your parents never talked about finances with you before.
“Sometimes it helps just to acknowledge that it’s awkward,” says Susan Dutton Freund, president of Smart Relationships, an organization that assesses and coaches people in emotional intelligence. “It’s also important to be clear about your motives for bringing up the topic. If you can be honest about your discomfort and open about your motives for discussing finances, it helps put the conversation on good footing.”
Dutton Freund suggests that you explain, for instance, that you want your parents to have the ability to stay in their home and pay their medical bills. Discussing their budget might allow you, together, to figure out if that is possible and if not, to discuss viable options. Accessing funds held in equity via a reverse mortgage is one alternative to increasing income.
Dawson further suggests approaching parents about finances when they have their mental capacity intact because, “Nothing is harder than trying to discuss complicated money issues if someone is cognitively impaired.”
Prioritize Time Needed for Helping Aging Parents
As your parents’ journey through life continues, they become more needy and often ask more of their adult children. Not only do the aging parents want your time, but they actually require it because of more doctors’ appointments, increasing paperwork, and the inability to complete tasks they formerly did themselves.
“Try not to feel guilty that you’re in full-throttle with your life and can’t increase your availability to accommodate them,” says Dr. Jane Greer, a New York-based relationship expert and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “Just know there will be more hands-on activities you need to do for them. If you know that, it will be easier to prioritize your time and find a balance as their needs and expectations increase.”
Empathize as Balance of Power Shifts
As parents’ physical health declines, the balance of power that shifts from parent to child can be uncomfortable for everyone. To minimize that discomfort, Dutton Freund suggests involving your parents in decisions regarding their care, when possible. “Be empathetic toward the challenge of losing autonomy, and help them preserve it as much as possible,” she says.
When parents’ wishes can’t be met, be gentle and clear about the reasons and ask them to help think of acceptable alternatives. If you feel frustrated trying to navigate the changes in your relationship, seek advice and support from the local senior center.
Lastly, remember that while it may be a challenge staying kind in the face of some parents’ crankiness, “It will feel much better to you if you can remember how hard, painful and scary aging and dying is on some people,” Paul said.
Time Passes, Kindness Will Endure
If time and health allow, adult children caring for their older loved-ones could find themselves in the same place as their parents one day. Empathy and compassion go a long way; and remember not to take the time that you have left together for granted.
Compassion during this phase of life goes a long way, and hopefully frustrating moments will be outweighed by happier times together. Beneath the changed faces exist those same loving folks who have guided you through difficult times in your own life.