My Sister, Nana: Parenting Your Parent

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Struggling with conflict in your sandwiched home? Tired of never-ending battles? Bring confidence and peace to your home by parenting your parent.

A few weeks ago, I braved the doctor’s office with three kids and my mother-in-law. It was supposed to be a quick med-check so I was feeling confident. We walked up to the reception desk and I told them we were there for my mother-in-law’s appointment.
The receptionist started interacting with my kids. They asked my three-year-old about her new brother and my daughter willingly responded. Ever the conversationalist, she not only told them about her new brother, but also her big brother, and her dog.
Then she told them we were here for “my sister, Nana”. I chuckled a bit, finished our check-in, and sat everyone down in the waiting area where I started thinking.
It’s such a weird concept. My sister, Nana. What would make her think Nana was her sister? When did I start parenting my parent?
**Queue dream-like memory music**

I struggled for the first year as a caregiver. Our home was a constant battlefield. My mother-in-law resisted everything I asked her to do. She wouldn’t shower, wouldn’t wear underwear, wouldn’t take her medicines.
Everything was an argument a battle. Something as seemingly simple as getting dressed for the day would take at least 2 hours. I was out of options and beyond frustrated.
I wanted to give up.
Finally, out of extreme desperation I stopped acting like a respectful daughter-in-law. Instead, I started thinking of and in some ways treating her like one of my children. 

Parenting Your Parent

Just by changing this mindset – by not thinking of her so much as my mother-in-law but almost as my child – gives me more compassion for her.
I am more patient when she asks the same question a dozen times or when she struggles to understand what I am asking her to do or when it takes a half hour just to put on her shoes because she keeps getting distracted.
I communicate better, know how to involve her more in our activities, and have changed my expectations for her from “you’re an adult, start acting like it,” to realizing that her mind is often like that of a child.


  • Instead of asking her to put on clothes, I guide her through the steps necessary to accomplish the task.
  • Instead of asking her to take a shower, I cheerfully announce it’s shower time.
  • Rather than suggesting underwear be worn, I insist she keep them on.
  • Just like with my kids, I lead her toward good decisions rather than adding to her stress and anxiety by forcing her to make those decisions and think through the steps on her own.

Instead of the constant battle we were experiencing before, she now seeks my guidance often asking, “What do I do now?”. She has peace knowing she’s not required to remember all the steps.

Changing my mindset has also changed my responses. Just like with my children, I have learned that anger is a quick reaction with few benefits. Every concern is treated with seriousness and compassion. Tantrums are soothed with time-ins and redirection. And just like it’s useless to argue with a three-year-old, arguing with someone with Dementia is just as futile.


No longer do I expect her to occupy herself. I now fill her days with activity. When the kids are working on school work, I have her “help” me. She keeps her mental sharpness by helping my children with matching, tracing, learning letters and numbers, sight words, simple math, and reading times.
We play simple games like Uno, dominos, and puzzles. She’s included in crafts, gardening, and simple household chores. I encourage her to practice her piano. We sing, listen to music, and dance. She joins us outside for nature walks and “treasure” hunts. Basically, her routines and schedules mimic that of the kids. 
When it comes to our routines, just like with the kids I give step-by-step instructions. I don’t simply tell my children to “get dressed”. Rather I guide them through the steps. My mother-in-law was frustrated by me telling her to “get dressed”.
Changing my approach and leading her through simple, step-by-step instructions has reduced our frustration and given my mother-in-law a renewed confidence in her abilities. 
By helping her fill her days and not expecting her to constantly occupy herself, she has gained a sense of security and belonging that we were lacking in our first year. 


If it’s too complicated for my kids, odds are my mother-in-law will struggle as well. If my kids won’t eat it, she probably won’t like it either. Her attention span is similar to my five-year-old’s.
Just like my kids, she wants to be served “first”, has no concept of “mom’s busy and can’t help you right now,” and gets easily frustrated by the word “no”. By simplifying my expectations, my responses are much more patient and positive. I’m able to keep a cool head and respond rather than react harshly.
I give her gentle reminders rather than expecting her to “know” how to act. When she is asking for something I remind her to say “please” and “thank you”. If she is being inappropriate in a social setting, I take her aside and let her know that it’s not appropriate and if she can’t be “nice” she needs to be silent. If she’s been cruel with her words, I let her know an apology is needed. And when she goes somewhere without me, I remind her of the behavior I expect her to display.
My three-year-old daughter is an observant child. She sees that her Nana is treated in much the same way she and her brothers are treated. She sees her Nana reacting in the same way that she or her brothers react. They all enjoy and participate in the same activities. To a three-year-old, that makes her a peer – a sister. 
It sounds strange that in my heart my MIL as my oldest child but it has brought a peace and stability to our home. My MIL is more confident and secure with her place in our home and family. Instead of feeling resentful and negative toward her, I have a similar love and compassion (and sometimes frustration!) I do for the children I gave birth to. Best of all my children have the rare privilege of growing up with their “sister”, Nana.

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