When Parenting Roles Reverse: The Art of Caregiving

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watched Mom’s confusion, a knot forming in my stomach, as she stared at me blankly and looked for the bathroom in her own home. I didn’t know how to answer when she asked where her four little girls were (me and my sisters of years past). Who’s to blame for this horrible disease? Why did this happen? Where is the mom who raised me? I couldn’t deny the strangling grip of Alzheimer’s.

As I watched my mom struggle with everyday chores, I began to help with cooking, laundry and grocery shopping. I applied her makeup and redirected her behavior when she spun out of control. I realized that she must have done the same thing for me when I was a young child. Fragile emotions spilled out as I walked in unfamiliar territory. I wanted an instruction manual on how to move from my 50-year role as her daughter to that of her caregiver.

As our parents age, it is not unusual for roles to reverse, particularly in the midst of illness. The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that approximately 44 million caregivers provided unpaid care in the last 12 months.

Understanding how to move into a caregiver role and balance it with parenting responsibilities presents unique challenges. Here are a few tips to help:

Recognize your limitations. Determine a realistic plan, mindful of your own family’s needs and responsibilities. I established a schedule with my husband to include two days at my parents’ out-of-town home, every other week. My routine allowed time to perform much-needed tasks for my mom without neglecting extended periods with our teenage son.

Say goodbye to the parent who raised you. Diagnoses that affect the brain such as dementia, Parkinson’s or stroke often create devastating changes to personalities. I made an intentional choice to open my mind to Mom’s new emotions, changing behavior and different mannerisms, no longer expecting the mom of my childhood. I processed raw emotions with my sisters, educated myself on dementia and joined an online support group to help cope with the changing dynamics in our relationship.

Live one day at a time. Mom’s dementia will not have a happy ending. When I envision details of the future, fear creeps in. I have learned to accept the good days and the bad without focusing on what lies ahead. I do not always do this perfectly, but when I live one day at a time, I enjoy the beauty of Mom’s laughter, the twinkle in her eye when she remembers my name and the momentary pleasure of a meaningful conversation as Mom reminisces about childhood memories.

Find support. Sharing the burden with others helps. I am thankful for three sisters who also want to help with Mom’s caregiving, but not everyone shares that privilege. Finding support through caregiver groups, local community activities, and others walking the same journey helps ease the tension and exhaustion that accompanies caregiving responsibilities.

Include grandchildren in caregiving roles. Children do not have to be shielded from aging parents. Asking older children to help with meals, laundry or errands moves them away from self-centered behavior and teaches them compassion for others. My sisters’ children help with cooking, cleaning and simple companionship on hard days. Grandchildren create lasting memories through routine tasks and meaningful conversations with grandparents.

Find gratitude for the parent now in your life.  As personalities change, new characteristics emerge. Mom’s private demeanor of the past has been replaced with a transparent and sensitive spirit. Deeper relationships develop as she easily expresses her needs and asks for help, embracing gestures of kindness with love and appreciation. Although no longer the mom of my past, I love her just the same.

Aging parents create new challenges when parenting roles reverse. An already overwhelmed schedule with our own children can prevent us from assuming a caregiver role. But life is a gift that can be taken away with little notice. As I watch Mom’s last season quickly drawing to a close, I want to honor her and show gratitude as often as possible, creating special moments in the process, without regrets in the end. I will always love her. 

Caregiver Resources

  • Hope for the Caregiver: Encouraging Words to Strengthen Your Spirit by Peter Rosenberger.
  • Creating Moments of Joy for the Person with Alzheimer’s or Dementia: A Journal for Caregivers by Jolene Brackey.
  • Caregivers Handbook by DK Publishing.
  • Family Caregiver Alliance: National Center on Caregiving; http://www.caregiver.org.
  • AARP Home & Family Caregiving Resource Center; http://www.aarp.org/home-family/caregiving.
  • Caring for You as You Care for Family; http://www.caregiving.com.
Gayla Grace
About Gayla Grace

Gayla Grace is a mom/stepmom to five children. A former piano instructor, she enjoys playing the piano at her church and other community events.

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