6 Things to Remember as you Start to Care for your Parents*

Adult children often experience major relationship role-changes as their parents get older. These role changes are at times uncomfortable, unfamiliar and can leave us feeling isolated and unsettled. As we come into the holidays, many of us will spend more time with family and feel the tensions that naturally come when the “closeness factor” changes.  Whether you are an adult child or a parent trying to communicate with your kids, here are six suggestions for overcoming some of the obstacles and frustrations we commonly experience during this time.

1. As awkward as it may be, start a conversation with your parents now about how they want help later.  Try to keep the communication lines open, even if you are just planting seeds. Adult children often try to help with the same tasks their parents are already working on – and end up stumbling over each other in the process.  I’ll never forget one day when a son called to ask about resources for his dad. He told me that his dad would never ask for help on his own. A few hours later — without talking to his son — the dad called: Could I help him figure out what to say to tell his son he needed more help?

Ask parents what they would like to have help with as well as for permission to revisit the conversation if the plan needs to change.  If a parent resists this conversation, find out whom they would like to talk with when the need or decision-time arises.

2. Acknowledge hard feelings.  Whether it’s a lack of appreciation for your efforts, resentment of perceived obligations or simply being exhausted, the reality is there are some days when we don’t want the role of helping out (or of being helped, to) — and then we feel guilty.

Find others who are also going through this stage of life, whether it’s people who are close friends, a support group or an online community.  You will feel better when you know that you’re not the only one having these feelings. It’s important to have people who remind us that we’re not doing anything “wrong” by feeling what we’re feeling.

3. Let yourself mourn.  You’re going to mourn the loss of your parents’ independence as much as they are. This can cause a frustrating juxtaposition in role reversals. As parents lose independence, they also hold on to what control they still have.  On the flip side, adult children often try to take control of the exact thing a parent doesn’t want them in control of. This whole power-play breaks down connection and deflects from the sadness about the loss — which often families are afraid to feel together.

Schedule a family check-in to talk about the role adjustments everyone is experiencing. Have ongoing check-ins as often as you feel is necessary to keep an open dialogue.  Consider hiring a third party to facilitate until you can move forward on your own. Avoid bringing up these conversations over the holidays — they are already emotionally-charged and finding a neutral time instead helps everyone come to the table with a clear head.

4. Be compassionate with yourself.  What’s it like being you?  This new role of caring for someone else, whether you’re close by or in another state, creates a new identity. When we take on new roles, they can conflict with how we view ourselves.  This is called an identity discrepancy — a feeling of “I’ve always been the child and now the tasks I’m doing don’t fit with that role.”  The greater this discrepancy, the more likely someone will feel conflicted which can result in symptoms of depression.

We need to be able to add the additional tasks required and also continue pursuing the things we love.  When we give up on what we love, we lose even more of our identity and the things we’re proud of about ourselves.  

5. Laugh when you can.  Take a step back as some of what you go through will be sweet or funny.  My dad took over my grandma’s finances shortly after my Grandpa died, but there was a steep learning curve as Grandpa had always given her an allowance to spend.  Now she was expected to manage money for the first time in her life. The bank called one day because Grandma had given her bank account number to the Republican Party.  According to Grandma, she thought it would be easier for them to just ‘take out what they needed’ which sent my dad scrambling for a few hours to lock the account. Later when she passed on, we laughed about this sweet memory when we found a Christmas card from the Bush family proudly displayed on her fridge.

Keep a journal of your experiences. Highlight the funny and lighthearted moments by writing with a different color or font. Differentiating those entries will allow you to go back quickly and find the joyful ones.

6. Finally, establish your own personal board of directors.  Having a network of support is important to maintaining a healthy outlook as our roles change. Sometimes it’s necessary to have a smaller, specific circle of support to help you correct course when they see that you may be off track.

Make a list of people you can check in with as time goes on.  Ideally, these are people who know your situation and will give you honest feedback about how you are managing as your role changes.  They should also be people who will tell you if you need to find additional support through counseling, joining a support group, or simply taking more time to do the things you love.  Find people you trust, feel connected with and who have walked with you through hard times in the past.

Everyone’s path will look different and this is not for the faint of heart. These steps are meant as suggestions.  Give yourself points for authenticity if any of them resonate with you.

* With writing and creative help from Rachel Kobelt, MSW & Nate Currey, MCMP

Picture of Jill Eelkema

Jill Eelkema

Having the right guidance as you or a loved one journey through life’s transitions makes a world of difference. Jill’s helped countless individuals and families work through major life changes with confidence and dignity. Her expertise in psychotherapy, care management, and facilitating tough conversations with family members will give you confidence and peace of mind no matter how tough life gets.

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