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Is caregiving everything you thought it would be? Like many of us, you are filling a role you never imagined you would need to fill. This has many of us wondering “What does it really mean to ‘parent my parents’?”.
There has been a lot of chatter in the past few months among caregiving communities that are pushing back against the idea of role reversal, commonly referred to particularly by those who have children as “parenting your parents”.
In one article the author claimed that those who consider caregiving similar to parenting were doing it wrong. They claimed role reversal infantilizes our parent and erases their legacy.
Another author said we should refer to it as an “evolution of roles” or “role change” rather than role reversal. He went so far as to say we as “children” have no right to make decisions for our parent. Rather we should guide them toward a wise decision and allow both good and bad “natural consequences” to occur.
I finally found an author who was actually a caregiver (instead of the “experts” with very little actual experience) who said that one of the worst things someone could do was suggest she was “parenting her parents”. While acknowledging the similarities, she felt the term itself was disrespectful and dehumanizing.
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While in some cases, like when your parent lives with you out of convenience or companionship but is still able to maintain an independent lifestyle, this may be true. “Parenting” them is not required and would be disrespectful. I might even suggest this to be true for those required to be a caregiver for a spouse. You don’t want to think about “parenting” your spouse.
For the vast majority of sandwiched homemakers though, our parent is brought into our home because they are no longer able to care for themselves and make decisions that would keep them safe, healthy, and yes, happy. In these cases, they do require care that is very similar to parenting.
Definition of Parent
So, before we go into parenting our parent, lets first look at a general definition of a parent. Parent according to Dictionary.com is
- a father or a mother.
- an ancestor, precursor, or progenitor.
- a source, origin, or cause.
- a protector or guardian.
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When we say we are “parenting our parent”, we don’t mean we are walking around saying “goo-goo” at our mom, swaddling them at bedtime, or encouraging them to eat with airplanes or choo-choos. I don’t walk around demanding my MIL call me “mom” or use terms of respect (here in the south we use ma’am and sir). I’m not instilling character qualities or trying to teach her how to function in society.
While I understand for some saying they are “parenting” takes on another meaning, for me it transformed my caregiving from resentful and confusing to joyful and all encompassing. When I say I’m “parenting” my MIL, I mean:
- I respond to chaos and outbursts rather than react
- Redirection is a well-used tactic
- I’m thinking constantly about personal hygiene reminders
- My understanding of her thought process is clear
- Simple phrases, easy to remember rhymes, and step-by-step instructions are a daily practice
Respond rather than react
As a parent, my kids look to me to know what their response should be to a certain situation. As my MIL’s Dementia progresses, I’ve noticed her looking to me in the same way for queues to how she should react.
I know when I’m angry at the world and having a bad day, her days are far worse. When I get angry at her lack of thought or selfishness, it causes her emotional turmoil knowing my feelings for her at that moment are not positive.
As I’ve grown as a caregiver (and parent!), I’ve learned that the quickest way to ease an argumentative, angry, or stressed mind is to be calm in my response.
Don’t argue, just redirect
My MIL tends to fixate on certain thoughts. Usually they are the hurtful, negative memories of some kind of wrongdoing. Some are factual. Others are dreamt. All are truth in her mind. These fixations can cause emotional outbursts. Just like with my kids, merely trying to soothe with calming remarks or even finishing the story with how the situation was resolved only causes protests or further fixation. I’ve learned to acknowledge my MIL’s feelings and then quickly redirect to a more enjoyable topic or activity.
Related Post: Effective Communication with Someone Who Has Dementia
The physical needs of my MIL largely require the same care I provide my children. Meals are prepared in the same way – no food touching and bite sized portions. Reminders are needed for bathroom breaks.
Oftentimes, my MIL is unable to communicate her needs to others. Ordering at a restaurant, communicating with doctors, paying for purchases all cause her stress and confusion. While, I always give her an opportunity to communicate on her own, most often she relies on me to advocate for her.
Just like my children, my MIL relies on me to research and practice the best lifestyle for her optimal health. She depends on me to properly administer her medication. I guide her towards dressing appropriately for events and weather.
As a parent, I am responsible for attending to the emotional needs of my children. My MIL is no different. She needs to get out of the house and into society regularly. As an out-going person, friendship is a necessity for her emotional well-being. She is often unable to define her emotions at any given time causing her to act in extremes. When she does become agitated, I ask myself the same questions I ask when my children throw a tantrum – is she hurt, hungry, tired, or frightened.
Oftentimes, my MIL is unable to distinguish dreams from reality. She will read something in a book or see it on TV and it becomes real for her. In these cases, unless she it is causing her distress, I allow her fantasies just as I would my children. If she’s anxious about these unrealities, I calm her fears with simple words.
When you are giving instructions to young children, you don’t hand them a laundry list of difficult tasks. You use simple words and only one or two steps at a time. As my MIL’s Dementia progresses, her ability to recall multiple steps decreases. Sometimes tasks that she has performed her entire life become foreign or new for her. Something as simple as remembering the steps to getting dressed in the morning or how to make a cup of coffee require guidance.
Mental stimulation is also important. While my MIL loves to read, she isn’t always able to follow the complexities of a story. My children love picture books for the same reason. When I’m not available to read to them, looking at pictures provide them with entertainment while also exercising their minds. I have found “coffee table books” to be the perfect solution for my MIL’s mental needs. She’s able to look at the pictures and read the short captions without worrying about following a storyline. She also enjoys scrapbooks and memory books filled with pictures of her past.
Our Favorite “Picture” Books
- National Geographic Visual Atlas of the World, 2nd Edition: Fully Revised and Updated
- Destinations of A Lifetime: 225 of the World’s Most Amazing Places
- The Bible Project Coffee Table Book: Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books
- Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World
- What a Year It Was! 1947
- Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story
Parenting My Parent
What we mean by parenting our parents is simply that there are similarities between our role as caregiver and our role as parent. There are physical aspects such as insisting on basic hygiene, reminding them to use the bathroom, and feeding for which I am now responsible. I am her protector, her advocate when she cannot speak, her guide. I keep her safe from physical harm and protect her from evildoers.
Whether you like the term or not, these are all roles parents fill for their children. It is care that goes beyond the typical interactions of one adult to another. It is a love that looks beyond the tantrums and the bathroom accidents.
As someone in the sandwiched trenches of parenting and caregiving, let me say that it doesn’t matter what we call it. Just as a parent would for a child and as they did for us, we are giving our parents the best life we can and in the best possible way.
Did you like this post? What do you think about the idea of parenting your parents? Let me know in the comments below!
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