9 Ways Caring for Parents is Different than Caring for Children

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According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, “nearly half (47%) of adults in their forties and fifties have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older).” This demographic has been deemed the “Sandwich Generation,” and a lot has been written about the unique challenges members of this group face.

What receives far less attention, however, is that the strategies and techniques used in childcare are extremely different from those used in providing care for seniors.

9 Differences Between Caring for Parents and Caring for Children

  1. Emotions. Plenty of feelings come into play in both caregiving scenarios, but the emotions are very different. Raising a child is filled with moments of joy and satisfaction as little ones learn, grow and become more independent. Caring for your parents, on the other hand, often involves feelings of sadness and even denial as they lose their abilities and require an increasing amount of assistance.
    “You grew up being taken care of by your parents, and now you’re taking care of them. People tend to underestimate how emotional that role reversal can be,” says Andrea Cohen, CEO of HouseWorks home care. “It brings up emotions that people didn’t anticipate.” The key is to talk about how you’re feeling with family and friends, or with a qualified therapist.
    Read: The Importance of Counseling for Caregiver Burnout
  2. Time. Children live with you from the moment they leave the hospital, usually until they strike out on their own or go away to college. For most families, time together is limited and the parents’ hands-on involvement wanes. With aging parents, the logistics are clearly different. There is no telling how long an elder may require your care, even if they have been diagnosed with a progressive illness. Many individuals live for a decade or more with conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. It is difficult, if not impossible, for an adult child to estimate the amount of time, hands-on care and financial resources a parent will need when considering becoming a caregiver. Even if you have already taken on the responsibility for a loved one’s care, make sure you are honest with yourself about how you are faring, and set some boundaries. Regular respite time will help you recharge your batteries and rebalance your priorities. Just keep in mind that there may come a time when you can’t juggle it all, and Mom or Dad may need to seek care from someone or somewhere else.
    Read: Where to Find Respite: Resources for Caregivers
  3. Intellect. “Debating a child is a far cry from debating your parent,” Cohen says. “It’s hard to argue with someone who you’ve respected and more or less obeyed all your life.” Cohen has several recommendations if your parent is being uncooperative when it comes to their care. One solution is to work with a geriatric care manager, who can assess the situation and make expert recommendations. Often, parents will listen to an objective third party before they listen to their child, even though you have their best interests in mind. For the same reason, asking your parent’s doctor to speak with them can be helpful. Another technique Cohen recommends: having conversations about aging with your parents early on. These discussions are likely to be less complex and urgent, compared to when they are in their seventies or eighties.
    Read: How to Talk about the Future with an Aging Family Member
  4. The Aging Process. Children are actually more predictable than the elderly, Cohen says. “You know they walk at year one, they talk at age two, etc. But with parents, their health can change on a dime.” Suddenly, the adult child is thrown into this world of caregiving that they don’t know anything about, and it’s scary. The process of helping and teaching a child may seem more rewarding, because you see progress as time passes. With an elderly parent, progress is usually not possible. Instead, regression is the norm. A caregiver’s best defense is to learn as much about a senior’s condition(s) as possible. They still may not progress in a textbook manner, but at least you’ll be somewhat prepared for what lies ahead.
  5. Financial Strain. Caring for an elderly parent can be an unexpected expense. Some seniors planned ahead by saving for retirement and purchasing long-term care insurance, but many seniors did not plan accordingly. Therefore, their families face a significant and unexpected financial strain. After all, it’s hard to factor your parents’ care into the budget when you’re also saving for your own retirement and the kids’ college education. The good news is the financial world is coming up with solutions to this sticky problem. Long-term care insurance, life insurance settlements, guaranteed retirement incomes and reverse mortgages are just a few of the tools families are using to make ends meet.
    Read: Paying for Care
  6. Siblings. Although they typically don’t have much of a say in raising your children, siblings’ votes do count when it comes to caring for parents. The situation is further complicated if some siblings live close to Mom or Dad, and others are out town. Resentment builds quickly when one sibling feels they are doing more than their fair share. Coordinating care among brothers and sisters is a difficult but necessary task. This situation is another one in which a third party can help. Professionals like clinical social workers, geriatric care managers, and even home care companies can help the family coordinate care and keep everyone informed.
    Read: Sibling Relationships: Resolving Issues While Caring for Parents
  7. Authority. Our whole lives, our parents have told us what to do, and most of the time we listened. In an elder-care scenario, though, the child is trying to tell the parent what to do. This role reversal can create a great deal of unease and tension. Keep in mind that there may come a time when you must speak legally and financially for your parent(s). It is crucial to work through this difficult transition early on and obtain power of attorney and other legal documents long before they are needed to avoid major issues.
    Read: Switching Roles: Coping with Your Rebellious Aging Parent
  8. Personality. Children learn the proper ways to behave and interact with others as they grow up. With aging loved ones, both desirable and entirely unpleasant characteristics may have become deeply ingrained over the years. Unfortunately, as seniors lose their independence and begin experiencing physical and cognitive changes, the undesirable traits may take center stage. This is especially common in individuals with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. There are some methods for coping with these difficult traits, but the time for adjusting their behavior is long gone.
    Read: How to Handle an Elderly Parent's Bad Behavior
  9. Quantity. While you can control the number of children you have, it is not as easy to control the number of elders who may require your care and assistance. Families are growing through divorce and re-marriage, so one person may care for as many as eight elders throughout their life, including parents, in-laws and stepparents. “Being a caregiver is tough,” Cohen says. “Being prepared, informed and organized can make the task a little easier.”
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11 Comments

You never know how long you will have to care for a parent. With children you can see the end coming and plan for it. Whereas the frail elderly can linger on for years and years and years.
Item number 10 on this list might be legal requirements for care. The law requires you to care for your children and will take them away if you don't. The law does not require you care for your parents.
You can guide/teach children the proper way to behave and interact with others. Elderly parents personalities are for the most part set in stone. If they were negative/difficult when you were growing up, they certainly don't become more cheery as they age and lose their independence bit by bit.