You may have heard it said that we all go through four phases of life. Each of these stages reflects a progressive role that we have with our parents and our children. 

First, we are born the child of a parent

Second, we eventually become the parent of a child.

Third, we effectively become the parent of a parent.

And in our final days, we essentially become the child of a child.

It may take a while to process that. Take your time and let it sink in. It is heavy and profound, yet simple and natural, and universally true. 

The third phase (parent of a parent) is perhaps the most difficult to grasp – a time when the roles feel awkwardly “reversed.” Our parents may be declining cognitively or physically or becoming vulnerable in some way that requires this change. 

This is a time when, as adults, we must step in and become more involved in our parents’ care. It is both a responsibility and a privilege to care for those who cared for us. To help keep them healthy and safe and to express our love in ways that are helpful and practical.

What Are the New Roles?

In attempting to redefine the parent/child roles, however, it’s important to view the evolving relationship in a healthy, life-affirming way. And that means thinking of it less as “parenting” our parents and more about helping them deal effectively with the challenges that aging brings. (Remember how they helped guide you through the years?)

Our parents should be treated with love, respect, and kindness, considering the full lives they have lived, the tremendous experience and wisdom they have gained, and the good memories we share together.

In turn, rather than becoming dependent, it is the parent’s role to take full responsibility for themselves by acknowledging when help is needed, being able to ask for that help, and receiving it graciously.

It is clearly a learning process for everyone involved and it takes time to adjust to some new realities. 

Moving Forward

This new way of interacting can prove to be challenging because of several factors:

  • A parent’s denial of physical or mental limitations
  • Their need for independence vs. their need for assistance
  • Their desire for privacy vs. our desire to check on their welfare

Adult children do not have automatic authority over their aging parents, and without power of attorney, they have no legal responsibility for their parents’ care. 

So, handling this “new normal,” requires a level of acceptance on both sides that is based on honest and open communication

Here are a few suggestions:

Start the conversation gently. We must lovingly express our concerns related to our parents’ situation so that they will view us as their confidante, rather than an adversary. (Ideally, this happens before a crisis strikes, while emotions are calm.) Sharing similar experiences of friends or other family members may help open the door to a conversation.

Make it a true dialogue. The importance of being a good listener cannot be overstated. Pay close attention to what your parents have to say about their wants and needs, without interrupting or making assumptions. Follow their lead and ask sincere, follow-up questions to make sure you fully understand their wishes.

Create an ongoing discussion. The best scenario occurs when parents and adult children assess the situation together and discuss, over time, the changes that are taking place and the best ways to address them. Life-planning decisions cannot be made overnight. It’s a process that takes time, patience, and understanding. 

Experts agree on a basic checklist of things to discuss: Living Arrangements/Caregiving, Finances & Legalities, and Health/Medical Support & Insurance. We’ll be addressing various aspects of each of these in future posts.

Remember, you are not alone. Caring for adults and parents as they get older has become fairly common. A recent study found that nearly 42 million adults in the U.S. are caregivers to people aged 50 and older. Taking the lead to help our aging parents will give them, and us, peace of mind.