Switching Roles: Coping with Your Rebellious Aging Parent

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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 them to their own devices is dangerous. They think they’re just fine and refuse help. Should you step in and get your parent all upset? Should you just let them do whatever they want?

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 they get 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 their own decisions, that to dare to tell them 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 themselves 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Start to collect information as soon as your parent demonstrates those red flags, those signs of trouble you've been denying, or they have. Do they 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.
  3. If your parent is dangerous with their habitual activities such as driving, paying bills or buying groceries, step in. Make rules. Learn a strategy for getting your parent 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.
  4. Do not expect your parent to accept logical arguments about why you need to help out. It's not about logic for them. It's about fear of losing control. Acknowledge this with your parent and respect the feeling. And as you would with a teenager, do what is needed to keep them safe, even if they don’t like it.
  5. 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. They may forget the explanation anyway. Keep your focus on safety and quality of life. Get past the fact that you don't like telling your parent 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.

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34 Comments

All of this is sound advise, but does not work in all situations. I have Power of Attorney and a Health Directive for my father in California where we live. These only work if the parent is cooperative. My dad kept his car keys in his pocket, refused to give them up, drove and injured three young people. He refused medical care and legally could not be forced to accept it. I would say he is in the ending stages of dementia, but is physically healthy; walks 5 miles a day and lifts weights. He can over power me. He has refused to see a doctor for 6 years so there are no medical professional evaluations. The police have been involved, but determined he doesn't qualify for a 51 50 where he is forced into a medical facility for an evaluation. Adult Protective Services have been involved, but determined since he is in good physical health he would not qualify for skilled nursing. He doesn't have enough money for assisted living or a group home setting. He is extremely difficult, fights all rules, does what he wants so he would probably get kicked out of most facilities. He refuses to let any care givers in the house and refused Meals on Wheels. He lives on sweets except for the meals he accepts from me. He lives two hours away. I spoke to a Public Guardian of the courts where a conservatorship could be started to force him into an evaluation. The problem is the hospital where he lives most likely will send him back home because he doesn't qualify for skilled nursing ( if the person doesn't have money and can get on Medi cal for skilled nursing only). Assisted living and/or a group home is private pay. They could and probably would determine he shouldn't be living alone and should be in a structured monitoring setting, but he doesn't have the money to pay for it. He is beyond what I could handle because he can not be controlled. Additionally, in a conservatorship a court order is required each time a person is asked to leave a facility, then you have to find a new facility and get a court order to move them. To make matters worse, many times the conservator of the person ends up spending their own money for travel, fees, etc because a court order is required for almost everything. Sometimes you can be denied, so the conservator is out of their own money. In many cases, family members don't have enough additional money to conserve their difficult elderly parent with dementia. So there are some situations where there are no solutions.
The most mizerable time in my life was when we siblings realized that our mother was in a dangerous situation. I allowed her to drive me somewhere and she scared the living daylights out of me. We realized that some bills were 6 months past due and she owed the state over $6,000 for unpaid taxes. We were forced to go to court to be able to take care of her. She was furious, but quickly allowed us to take care of her business. We had to forcably move her to an assisted living center, but we know now that she's taking her meds, eating nutritious meals and getting some additional human interaction. Sometimes love is tough. . .
This reminds me of something that an Nursing Home nurse communicated to me at one point: If a patient has been admitted to a medical facility, such as a hospital or rehabilitation facility, they may not be released unless they have someplace suitable to go. If nobody steps foward to make a home for them where they can receive adequate care (and by that we should also consider that it should be successful care, which we may not be able to provide considering the challenges described in the preceding posts), then the facility must find a place for them. Keep this in mind for the future if your relative goes down this path. When asked if you will be able to provide adequate care in your home, or theirs, answer truthfully, NO. This may be the only way that your elder relative will enter a facility that can provide the care they need.