Nothing prepares you for this, parenting your own parents. Your mother and father have always been the strong ones, the older generation, dependably there (if you’re lucky) for you all your life. Then comes the time when they need you as their bodies and minds (sometimes both) fail them.
Old age as Bette Davis once said, is not for sissies. Neither is watching it happen to one you love or having to care for a once strong, thriving parent as they fade away.
Prepared or not for the change in roles, you’re now faced with two awful, no-win choices — ignore the present unpleasant reality and go on as you always have, or suck it up and make the hard (sometimes heartbreaking) changes that need to be made so you can take care of these two people as they took care of you.
If this didn’t happen for you, or your childhood wasn’t so good, all bets are off in terms of taking on the parenting role now. A bad parent has earned your feelings and need for distance. There are some parental behaviors that are simply unforgivable, that remove any obligation society (or conscience) says you have; but barring those it’s to your credit if you at least try to do better than was done for you.
Parental aging and need for more direct care is a true test of sibling relationships — pulling you together as a united front, or tearing you apart. It can have siblings (and in-laws) taking sides when deep down all anyone wants is to do their best for someone they love and are watching fade away. Sometimes the pain of having to parent a parent brings out the most childish of behaviors, other times it fuels the need for distance in order to avoid a reality that’s agony.
And then the parent (or parents) don’t always make things easy. They fight the loss of independence, the slowing of faculties or the suggestion that they may need more help. They resist your efforts o help. Old people can be incredibly stubborn, even to their own detriment, although no one likes the feeling of losing control over their life — you won’t either. It’s left to the adult (that’s you) to make and enforce rules about physical care, as well as safety at home or on the road.
Yes it sucks. Yes you’ll cry and doubt yourself. You’ll feel mean and disrespectful, even though you are trying to be kind and helpful. If you’ve had your own children, taking on the unpleasant role of parenting is a bit easier, but if you’re childless this is all new territory for you.
The only thing I’ve found that helps to deal with the role reversal is to think (long and hard) about how you will want to be treated when your time comes. You will want respect and dignity. You won’t want people to point out mistakes (past or present) or be impatient with your slowing faculties. You’ll value your independence and control over your life and body. You won’t want to be treated as a burden but rather a resource to be relied upon.
When dealing with aging parents, I’ve often found it’s better to be kind than to be right. Expect your parent to balk at new restrictions, respond firmly, honestly and without patronizing. Expect temper and testing (as you must have done) and keep moving forward without reacting.
Last, but certainly not least, don’t try to do this all alone. It’s a hard, horrible transition and it’s normal to need help… to vent and have less than charitable feelings.