What Does Parenting Your Parents Really Mean?

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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 among caregiving communities that are pushing back against the idea of role reversal, commonly referred to particularly by caregivers who have children as “parenting your parents”.

There are many people who don’t like the idea of parenting our parents.

  • They may feel as though role reversal infantilizes our parent and is disrespectful.
  • Many believe parenting our parents erases their legacy in a way, removing the idea of a family patriarch or matriarch.
  • Some feel like it’s merely bad form to call it parenting or even role reversal and suggest instead terms such as “evolution of roles” or “role change”.
  • And a few believe we, as adult “children” lack the right to make decisions for our parent. Rather we should guide them toward a wise decision and allow both good and bad “natural consequence” to occur.

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The Reality of Role Reversal

Many adult children are now facing the harsh reality that they are having to become caregivers for their aging parents. Whether you are thrust into a full role of caregiving and decision making through sudden illness such as stroke or are slowly evolving into the role in cases of Dementia, the reality is that we are now taking on many responsibilities, decision making, and authority our parents once had over us.

The idea is not disrespectful or dehumanizing. It simply is.

It is our reality.

We now have the large, overarching responsibility of:

  • Ensuring our parent’s health and safety to the best of our ability
  • Making decisions for them about finances, legal matters, and safety (such as driving)
  • Find solutions for difficult and even dangerous behavior
  • Protecting them from dangers, even when those dangers may be self-inflicted

But, the idea of parenting our parent goes even deeper as we are now responsible for our parents day-to-day much as they were responsible for us as we were growing up.

Now we are forced to assume many “parental” responsibilities for our parents.

  • We have to remind them to practice basic hygiene like showering, brushing teeth, changing clothes, and washing hands. Sometimes we even have to assist with these tasks.
  • We’re often faced with the challenge of incontinence that involves anything from bathroom reminders to full diaper changes.
  • A good diet is now our responsibility and sometimes involves strict “kitchen rules”.
  • Curfews have to be set. Bedtimes become a thing. Rules must be followed for everyone’s safety and wellbeing.
  • We are even required to tell our parents “no” on occasion when their own better judgement could lead to them harming themselves or others.

The Big Difference

While many of our tasks as caregivers resemble the tasks of parents, there are indeed differences that must be addressed.

Related Post: My Sister, Nana

  • Our language and tone will be different. Even when we are giving instructions, setting boundaries and rules, or even “telling our parent what to do” we should be loving and respectful.
  • The rules and boundaries we set must be for safety and well-being, not just convenience or because it’s the way we like things done.
  • Our goal in this role reversal is merely for the health and well-being of our parent. We are not instilling character qualities or teaching life lessons.

Instead we become our parents’ protector, their advocate, their advisor, their safety net.

Why the term “parent” might be beneficial

The idea of role reversal or parenting our parents leaves a bad taste with many caregivers. However, there are times when viewing ourself as a kind of parent might be beneficial. 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 consistent 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

Essentially, I am taking some of the tools I have learned as a parent and applying them to my role as a caregiver.

Respond rather than react

As a parent, my kids look to me to know what their response should be to a certain situation. Their attitudes toward situations are often a reflection of my own. If I’m anxious or stressed, then it follows that they will also exhibit a certain anxiety even if the reason is unclear to them. As my MIL’s Dementia progresses, I’ve noticed her looking to me in the same way for queues to how she should react.

This is why I should strive for my responses even in chaotic or angering circumstances to be calm and measured because my attitude has a snowball effect on those around me, particularly those in my care.

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

Physical Care

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.

Emotional Needs

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.

Related Post: The Simple Solution to Finding Happiness As A Family Caregiver

Mental Well-being

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

Nixplay Original 15 inch WiFi Cloud Digital Photo Frame

In the kitchen, I have a digital picture frame. It plays a slideshow of pictures from my MIL’s past as well as our present. This keeps the faces of her family fresh on her mind and also allows literally hours of entertainment and distraction for her.


Parenting My Parent

What most caregivers 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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