Switching Roles: Coping with Your Rebellious Aging Parent
By Carolyn Rosenblatt
You may be surprised or even a bit shocked to hear an aging parent say something rude to you. Or, you ask Mom or Dad politely to discuss finances with you and they stubbornly refuse. It's odd, but undeniable. They are going through some changes as they age.
If your parent is forgetting to pay bills, or forgets that you visited yesterday, it's a huge red flag for you. Most of us dismiss this at first. They're just getting old. Or, getting forgetful is "normal", you tell yourself. You rush in to take care of things. You offer to help. You are met with resistance.
As time goes by, your parent is making more and more mistakes, the memory problems are getting worse and you now know leaving her to her own devices is dangerous. She thinks she's just fine and refuses help. Should you step in and get her all upset? Should you just let her do whatever she wants? After all, she's your mother.
The answer is "no", you can't just let a parent with signs of dementia or other significant memory problems go on as if nothing were wrong, even if she gets upset with you. At some point, the adult child who loves a parent must step in. You may end up setting limits, making new rules, or taking over certain decisions. This is not easy for most people. We are so accustomed to our parent making her own decisions, that to dare to tell her what to do is very uncomfortable.
Some people call this "switching roles". What it means is that your job, one you've never done before, is to be sure your parent is safe and cared for, just as your parent once did for you. The problem is, your parent is not going to grow up, become more mature and eventually appreciate your efforts. So where does that leave you?
For most adult children who must learn this new job of safety monitor, taking on the new responsibility of "parenting your parent" leaves you with a fair amount of stress and anxiety. Some adult children still feel intimidated by an imperious aging parent, even one who is infirm, demented or unable to care for herself independently. It takes some doing to face this and cope, but it can be done.
Here are five strategies to cope when you find yourself in the new role of "parenting your parent" - particularly when your rebellious or difficult aging parent may not want you to take over anything.
- Make peace with the reality of your parent's aging. It isn't going away. It isn't going to get easier. With dementia, memory loss and other conditions, behavior of an aging person can change dramatically. The judgment your parent once had may be very damaged. It can't be fixed. Your parent needs your help. Accept that this may be hard for you.
- Start to collect information as soon as your parent demonstrates those red flags, those signs of trouble you've been denying, or she has. Does she have legal documents, such as durable power of attorney, trust and healthcare proxy? Where are they? When were they last updated? You may need to take over on any one of them some day. Find out about parent's income, bank accounts and where their records are kept. It's essential.
- If your parent is dangerous with her habitual activities such as driving, paying bills or buying groceries, step in. Make rules. Learn a strategy for getting Mom to give up the car keys. Gently insist on helping with bill payment. Offer to hire someone to help keep groceries in the house or offer to do this chore if you live in the area.
- Do not expect your parent to accept logical arguments about why you need to help out. It's not about logic for her. It's about fear of losing control. Acknowledge this with her and respect the feeling. And as you would with a teenager, do what is needed to keep her safe, even if she doesn't like it.
- Avoid being reactive when your parent gets upset with your "rules" or the limits you set. You need not engage in an argument. "Let's not fuss about this" is a perfectly acceptable response. Then keep on doing what you need to do. Trying to explain why you need to keep a parent safe is unnecessary. She may forget the explanation anyway. Keep your focus on safety and quality of life. Get past the fact that you don't like telling Mom what to do.
If this is about caring properly for your aging parent, and you keep that as your main focus, you'll get through this transition to being in charge. If you start to make it about you, you'll increase your own stress level. The most unselfish and loving thing you can do when a child wants to do anything dangerous is to say no. The same is true for your aging parent. You may have to say no in one way or another. Make no excuses for yourself. If it's hard, if it is unpleasant, that may be the way of things. This too shall pass.
You don't want to look back on your efforts to help a parent with regret that you weren't assertive enough. Parents who are left to their own devices when they are not safe can be seriously neglected, taken advantage of or injured. Overcoming an aging parent's rebellious resistance (or your own resistance) is an act of love. May you find the courage to demonstrate that.