You had to take away the car keys. It was quite a battle, and he’s still furious. You're managing incontinence by reminding her to use the bathroom often so she doesn’t have an accident, and she’s embarrassed. You're managing finances by cancelling the credit card that was being used aimlessly and often and now they’re giving you the silent treatment. Are these people your toddlers? Teenagers? No, they are your aging parents.
Does this mean you are now “parenting your parents?” Is this what they mean by role reversal? Well, yes and no. These are phrases that are now in vogue. They make quick sound bites for interviews and great titles for books. (I nearly named my own book “Role Reversal,” but saw it was already being used too often and came to my senses.)
I have found that I have a real issue with these phrases. I understand their widespread use; the comparison is easily understood, even by those who have never cared for an ill or aging parent. Oh, your parents are in decline and you must make decisions for them and maybe even change their diapers? They nod. They sympathize. You have become your parent’s parent. You have switched roles with them. Or have you?
Dementia Cannot Change Parenting Roles
My dad suffered instant dementia following a botched brain surgery that was supposed to prevent that very fate. Before the procedure my father had an insatiable desire for knowledge. After surgery, I never knew which Dad I would find when I visited him. He could be a man running for president one day and a guest director on The Lawrence Welk Show the next. In order to help him cope, I had to get into his world and run with whatever he thought was going on. He needed total care, mentally and physically.
On the other hand, my mother’s dementia descended upon her gradually. She was a champ at keeping signs of decline a secret, so it was harder to spot at first. Unfortunately, Mom was easily taken in by phone calls offering “deals,” and I once had to cancel over $1,000 worth of magazine subscriptions that would have kept coming until she was over a century old. We decided (with much pressure from me) that she should no longer have a credit card.
I needed to help them both in the bathroom. I had to drive them and supervise them wherever they went. These and many other examples would make most 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 had to take over the decision-making and become their primary caregiver during their decline.
I tried to be aware of the losses they felt as their bodies and minds betrayed them. Sometimes I failed at this, but nobody is perfect. I tried to be sensitive to the fact that they had few real choices they could make and allow the freedom to make their own decisions whenever possible. I tried to be as tactful as possible when there was no other choice but to curtail some of their freedoms.
Caring for Children and Elderly Parents Is Different
Caregivers must never forget that there is a major difference between caring for elders and children. Children are just learning, and they will grow out of their dependency, presuming they are blessed with good mental and physical health. On the other hand, elders are suffering enormous losses, of which they are keenly aware. They are not going to learn, adapt or “grow out of it.” Instead, they will continue to decline and lose their independence.
With children, you make your decisions and do your heavy lifting with the hope that they will eventually become self-sufficient adults who are able to make their own choices, 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.
However, our elders are wilting blooms. One by one, the petals fall away. But that doesn’t mean the rose never bloomed, never existed. The dried remains are proof that the rose once blossomed. They have lived out their life cycle. They’ve experienced far more than we have and therefore have trouble allowing us to take the lead in their daily lives, health care, housing and finances.
My parents deserved my respect as people who had lived much longer than I had. They deserved my admiration as people who had given to their family, their friends, their community, their church and their country. 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. In most cases, they have done their best to guide and encourage their younger counterparts.
When we rely on phrases like role reversal to describe the care we provide, it has the potential to color our feelings and attitudes about caregiving and our relationships with our parents—and not necessarily in a positive way. It’s difficult enough to step in, set boundaries and help someone we love manage their lives without making them feel incompetent and devalued. While there may be similarities between parenting and elder care, there are far more stark differences. Preserving an elder’s dignity, independence and sense of control as much as safely possible should be a priority for caregivers and these concepts that imply switching roles can affect one’s ability to do just that.
I refuse to debase my elders by using careless terms just because they’re convenient and catchy. My parents were my parents. I am their adult child. When dementia and ailing bodies left them in my care, I needed to make countless decisions for them. 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 was their daughter. No popular little phrase will change that.