Caring for elderly parents requires a delicate balance: Adult children have to meet their parents’ care needs while navigating difficult emotions that result from role reversal, life changes, and loss of independence.
The emotional fallout of role reversal can lead to elderly parents resisting care or guidance—and it can lead to adult children feeling rejected or underappreciated. Ultimately, elderly parents “want to be cared about, but fear being cared for,” writes Claire Berman, the author of Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents.
Empathizing with how an elderly parent is coping with life changes, helping him or her remain a valuable fixture of his or her family and community despite those changes, and giving him or her as much control over day-to-day decisions as possible can help overcome the role reversal that comes with caring for elderly parents.
Understanding an Elderly Parent’s Stubbornness
About three-quarters of adults caring for elderly parents list stubbornness as one of the greatest caregiving challenges they face. And, funny enough, most elderly parents agree, one study found.
But elderly parents and adult children often had different understandings of why parents are being stubborn. Adult children often believed the stubbornness was rooted in a parent resisting the reversing roles that come with caring for an elderly parent. Seniors, on the other hand, said their stubbornness was just who they were as people—not a result of role reversal.
In other words, adult children often read too much into their parents’ stubbornness, the study found. Adult children often believed it was from their parent resisting or refusing their care, but parents often believed they were just voicing the same views and opinions they’ve always had.
Most important, the study found that adult children and elderly parents can communicate their way around the stubborn behaviors like resisting, persisting, and insisting when they’re on the same page.
Elderly Parents Want to Feel Connectedness
The only thing that elderly parents value as much as their independence is a sense of connectedness, research shows. What’s more, elderly parents who feel a strong sense of connectedness with their families and communities have been shown to be more accepting of care and advice from family members.
Taking steps to make an elderly parent feel more connected to you, the rest of his or her family, and his or her community can actually help offset some of the strain and anxiety that result from reversing roles brought about by caring for elderly parents:
- Show Affection: Small displays of affection like hugging, shoulder rubbing, and hand holding have been shown to lower stress and promote overall well-being in seniors.
- Hearing and Vision Tests: Seniors experiencing hearing or vision loss are more likely to isolate themselves and struggle to connect with family, friends, and communities; hearing and vision tests will help eliminate those barriers to connectedness.
- Technology: Setting an elderly parent up with “soft” modes of communication like texting, email, and social media will help him or her feel more connected to you and other family members.
- Transportation: Making transportation available to seniors through a ride-sharing app, a driving service, or public transit can help them get out and engage with the community more, bringing about feelings of connectedness.
For adult children caring for elderly parents, not only will encouraging connectedness help ease the strains of role reversal, but it will improve their quality of life and overall well-being.
Elderly Parents Need Choices, Autonomy
Loss of independence is the greatest fear most people have about growing older, and role reversal from caring for elderly parents can amplify those fears. In response, elderly parents might try to re-establish boundaries by withholding information, resisting sound advice, or minimizing the level of care they’re receiving.
Helping your loved one feel that he or she is in control of his or her own life and decisions can help break down some of the barriers that come up when elderly parents feel that their independence is being threatened:
- Ask Questions: Open-ended questions about how a loved one feels about his or her current situation, what his or her hopes or fears are, and what his or her plans are for the future will give him or her a voice and a sense of control.
- Choices: Providing choices when it comes to things like diet, daily schedules, finances, and future plans can reinforce a sense of control in elderly parents.
- Negotiate: Instead of talking to elderly parents in “either/or” terms, make shorter gains by being flexible and willing to accommodate; if driving has become a challenge, for example, agreeing that it’s safe to drive to local destinations at certain times of the day might be a great first step.
A key to caring for elderly parents is helping them maintain their autonomy and independence as much as possible. Doing so will prevent them from putting up barriers that help them feel in control again.
Caring for Elderly Parents: In Review
Navigating emotions and challenges brought on by role reversal can be just as challenging for adult children as caregiving itself. Remember that a loved one might not be resisting or refusing care when he or she is stubborn; more often, he or she is grappling with life changes and loss of control as best as he or she can. And no matter what stage of life we’re in, feeling a sense of connectedness is a high priority for everyone. Keeping your loved one engaged with the family and his or her community will make him or her more receptive to receiving care and guidance. Finally, elderly parents fear loss of independence above almost everything else. Listening to their concerns and giving them choices will instill a sense of control and prevent them from putting up barriers.