Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Children Care For Their Parents

March 24, 1997

We are delighted as our parents experience rich and full lives and live well into old age. With this delight come new responsibilities. Children step in and provide needed help to maintain the health, safety and well-being of their parents. This help is given in the spirit of love and compassion in return for the many years of love and sacrifice parents have freely given.

How do parents and children gracefully reverse roles? How do you preserve the dignity and independence of elderly parents while meeting some of their basic needs? How do children add a caregiving role to their already busy lives? What adjustments have to be made when there are serious impairments, such as Alzheimer's Disease or a physical disability?

Here are some basic guidelines for children involved in caring for elderly parents.

1. Accept the commitment and the role wholeheartedly. If you hold back and are angry and resentful, then your attitude will show up in your caregiving. This is reality. This is life. This is not forever.

We can learn and gain a lot by caring for elderly parents. Families benefit. You benefit by giving compassionate and loving service to those who have loved and served you.

2. Share this responsibility within the family. Nobody can do this alone. Your spouse's attitude and support about the caregiving role are a crucial part of coping. Your own children can play a positive role in some of the care needed. If you believe you can call on others to share the responsibility, it makes a big difference.

Other brothers and sisters can share in this responsibility. Family meetings are help fill in clarifying responsibilities, planning for care, and negotiating the sharing of caregiving tasks. Family members have different talents, motivations, and life circumstances. Not all are suited or may be able to provide most of the care. Accepting that fact may ease family relationships.

Siblings can do what they do best. They can offer material and emotional support. They can give respite to the primary caregiver. Their willing hearts and hands can make a big difference. Communication can clarify each other's desires and expectations. Work through your anger and let go of resentments of those who don't measure up.

3. Manage your own personal stress. You have a life to live outside of the caregiving role. You have needs and goals. You have physical and emotional limitations. You need to deal with your anger, depression, fatigue, frustrations and other negative emotions. Your own emotional adjustment is a key to the quality of care you give to your elderly parent.

Part of coping is doing something for yourself You need personal time and space to be and do for yourself. You can meet your own needs and expect those close to you to care for you. Negotiate with your employer any special needs you may have regarding your caregiver role.

4. Seek help. Positive coping means seeking needed information about your parent's problems, special needs or condition. Support groups for caregivers give an emotional release and valuable ideas on how to solve problems. Individual counseling is another place to discuss emotionally charged personal problems or grieve your losses in an intimate one-to-one relationship. There are also self-help books and resources available.

"In Home" care, offering a variety of medical and social support services, can supplement family caregiving and provide the technical and respite care to sustain you and your elderly parents. Adult day care and respite care in nursing homes are valuable resources to aid with caregiver overload and strain.

5. Keep the quality of your relationship and interactions positive. Keep the interactions on an adult-adult level instead on a caregiver/carereceiver basis. Openness and respect maintain the dignity of elderly parents. Parents can have a role in keeping the relationship on an adult/adult level by aecepting help with graciousness. They can find ways to be helpfiil and useflil to the family and can try to understand the lives and concerns of their adult children.

Interpersonal stress increases when you share a household. When parents enjoy the privacy and independence of their own home they have greater self-esteem. They maintain their functions in the home and friendships with neighbors and friends.

Intense emotional involvement in a parent's care often means poorer adjustments for everyone involved. Moderate involvement leads to greater health, coping and less stress. Expressing negative emotions such as anger and criticism harm your relationship. Negative interactions have a stronger influence between older parents and adult children than do positive interactions.

Reduce conflict by using humor, gentle teasing, and non-controntational approaches to problems. Graciously overlook some problems and help them save face. Know when to back off, distract, deflect and prevent conflict. Keep your emotions under control.

When a patronizing tone of voice and disagreements come from a spouse, they can be accepted and interpreted as concern and caring about their marriage. However, when patronizing comments come from a child, they have a negative influence on the relationship.