As children, our parents can seem all-powerful. We go to them for advice, love, and acceptance. Yet, as they age and experience health difficulties, we encounter new versions of them.

Eventually, they may struggle to talk, move, or care for their basic needs. This transition can be confusing and distressing not only for them but for us. American culture often adds to those stresses, because it tends to esteem youth over age. Negative stereotypes about aging can mean that parents deny their challenges, while children simultaneously resist the idea that their parents are struggling.

Grief, anger, and fear can erupt in both parties and yet, most people will experience these changes—either as children with aging parents or perhaps as seniors who at some point require assistance.

So, what can we do as we experience this role reversal? How can we help those we love navigate their shifting world?

1) Find New Ways to Talk
Children grow up being the recipient of parental advice, but when parents’ health deteriorates, they may find it difficult to listen to their children’s advice. Yet a child’s worries about physical challenges or memory confusions usually have validity. If you’re having difficulty talking to your parent about their health issues, remember that concerns may be more easily accepted if they don’t come across as orders. So instead of asserting “I don’t think you can drive safely anymore,” try sharing a feeling, such as “I get worried when I’m driving with you because I no longer feel safe.” Simple offers might also find traction, such as “Could I drive today? I love driving you around. It reminds me of the old days when you taught me how to drive.”

2) Pain and Observation
Some parents will realize on their own that they need help with driving, cooking, or paying their bills, but if an activity is intrinsic to their identity, its loss may be harder to bear. A cook who defines themselves by the special dishes they prepare or a car lover who delights in every drive may particularly grieve the loss of those activities. Sharing their pain can lighten those losses, and there’s no need to look on the bright side. It’s okay to commiserate. Until people are allowed to feel their pain, they often can’t let go of it. Once those emotions have been let loose, people are often ready to adapt at least a little. Maybe the cook would appreciate sharing their recipes with their child and simultaneously getting some help with challenging tasks, and maybe the car lover might have places that they could safely drive—such as a picturesque rural road with a watchful son or daughter in the passenger seat. Changes in physical and mental ability are often gradual, so, if possible, don’t rush into forcing an immediate change. First, observe, and try to allow the transition to happen slowly and naturally, which gives time for grief, anger, and adjustment.

3) Sudden Shifts
Sometimes change happens suddenly. With my husband, it was a stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Unfortunately, when a physical or mental change is rapid, the emotional transition may still be gradual. A patient’s emotions may be overwhelming, and erupt at the people closest to them. Children and spouses will simultaneously be dealing with their own shock and grief. With my husband, I found that I needed to take time to cry and worry, while also finding ways to care for him. When either of us felt particularly strong emotions, I would step into the next room, wait for the big emotions to settle, then return after we had time to reset. The same can often work for frustrated parents and children.

Remember, caring for an aging parent is an endeavor that may last for years, so make certain to ensure that you build time for self-care into your life. Also, don’t forget that the shift in life roles can offer unique moments of connection and love. Although things have changed, these years will always be a precious and memorable time in your relationship.

Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and be well. —KK

Please consider making a donation to the Kathi Koll Foundation so you can help make a difference in struggling family caregivers’ lives. Thank you!

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