How “Role Reversal” or Other Catch Phrases Skew Your Thoughts


You had to take away the car keys. It was quite a battle, and he's still mad. You have to remind her to use the bathroom often, or she'll have an accident, and she's embarrassed. You had to cancel the credit card that was being used aimlessly and often. Are these people your toddlers? Teenagers? No, they are your parents.

Does this mean you are now "parenting your parents?" Is this what they mean by "role reversal?" Well, yes and no.

"Parenting your parents" and "role reversal" are phrases that are now in vogue. They make quick sound bites for interviews. They make great titles for books (I nearly named Minding Our Elders "Role Reversal," but saw it was already being used too often. Fortunately, after much musing, I came to my senses.)

I have found that I have a real issue with these phrases. I understand the use, as people immediately "get" the meaning. Oh, your parents are in decline and you have to make their decisions and maybe even change their diapers. They nod. They sympathize. You have become your parents' parent. You have switched roles with them. Or have you?

Dementia Cannot Change Parenting Roles

My dad suffered instant dementia after brain surgery. Before surgery, he was Dad, insatiable intellect in tact but getting fuzzy from fluid build up behind scar tissue left by a World War II brain injury. After surgery, I never knew which Dad I would find, when I visited him. He could be a man running for president one day; he could be a guest director on Lawrence Welk the next. In order to help him cope, I had to get into his world and run with whatever he thought was going on (I'll save the details of this controversial process for another article).

Except for a very rare moment where my "real dad" suddenly fought his way through the demented territory of his mind, my dad needed total care, mentally and physically.

On the other hand, my mother's dementia descended gradually and she was a champ at covering it up, so it was harder to spot. But Mom was easily taken in by phone calls offering "deals," and I once had to cancel over $1000 worth of magazines that would have been coming until she was over a century old. We decided (with much pressure from me) that she no longer should keep a credit card. I needed to help them both in the bathroom. I needed to take them wherever they went. These and many other examples would make many people think I was parenting my parents.

But my parents were my parents. That is a fact of life that no illness could change. I never felt otherwise. I was their daughter. They took care of me when I was young. They were there to support me through difficult times in my young adulthood. They were terrific grandparents to my children. They were intelligent, funny, experienced adults. None of that history was wiped away when I, as primary caregiver, had to take over the decision making process during their decline.

I tried to be aware of the losses they felt as their bodies and minds betrayed them (I know I sometimes failed – that, too is for another article). I tried to be sensitive to the fact that they had few real choices they could make, and allow those choices whenever possible. I tried to be as tactful as possible when there was no other choice but to curtail some of their freedoms.

Children and Elderly Parents are Different

Caregivers must never forget that there is a major difference between elders and children. Children are just learning, and they will grow out of these stages, presuming they are blessed with good mental and physical health. Elders are suffering enormous losses, of which they are keenly aware. They are not going to "grow out of it." They will continue to decline.

With children, you make your decisions and do your heavy lifting with the hope that they will eventually become adults, able to make their own decisions, good or bad. You can say, "I'm the parent and I know what is right because I've been there." There is a future for this child. He or she is a new bud of life that, God willing, will reach full blossom.

For our elders, the petals are falling off the rose. One by one, the petals fall away, eventually leaving the dried nub of death. However, that doesn't mean the rose never bloomed. That it never existed. That dried nub is proof that the rose once bloomed. It lived through a life cycle.

My parents deserved my respect as people who had lived much longer than I. They deserved my respect as people who had given to their community, their church, and in my dad's case, to international health care. They were human beings who knew love and respect as well as pain and the consequences of mistakes. They lived their lives fully.

I strongly believe that no matter how many losses our elders suffer from the cruel decline of body and brain, they deserve to be considered adults. They have grown and bloomed and created life. They have produced, and in most cases, done their best to guide young life.

I refuse to take this away from them by a careless use of terms, just because it's convenient and catchy. My parents were my parents. I am their adult child. When dementia and ailing bodies left my parents in my care, I needed to make some decisions, and in some cases, for their own safety and that of others, these were decisions they didn't like. But I tried to do it with respect and I did my best to preserve their dignity. They had a right to that no matter how disabled they became.

Role Reversal? Never. I was their caregiver when they needed me, but always, always, they were the parents and I the daughter. No convenient, catchy little phrase will change that.

Carol Bradley Bursack

Follow this author

Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

Minding Our Elders

View full profile

You May Also Like

Free AgingCare Guides

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!


You are so right. Thanks Carol.
Good Perspective. I have trouble with the terminology of role reversals also. I look forward to reading more about my evolving caregiver status. I also wish to hear from Males taking care of their Mother's who like in my case have never had children. Thanks!
Yes, you are so right!
It is hard as their child, to escape that role, as an adult. I need to be an adult in this situation, taking care of the house, the meds, the lawyers, the money, the bills, and the parents. But there is this lingering old role of "mothers-child". Ah, somedays it is hard to be who you are and not who you were, and always, always, know where the cat is...