Before he deceased my father-in-law, Dr. Sidney Duboe, used to say, "It takes two parents to bring up six children, but it takes six children to look after two parents." There happens in the life of every child when he or she turns out to be a parent to his or her parent(s). This transition and role reversal often lead to psychological difficulties for both sides. In some situations the operative term may be "parental figure" rather than a real parent.
For the parent it presents an increasingly difficult conflict. The parents have been caregivers and caretakers to their children for decades. I know even as a middle-aged psychologist I consulted my parents for advice when writing books or articles. And, of course, a mother will be Mom no matter how old she is. Gradually, the parent comes to rely on his or her children for more and more things. There develops both an appreciation and a resentment. "Don't treat me like a child!" punctuates the end of many conversations. These behaviors are based in a perceived loss of dignity and self-respect. The degree to which a parent adapts to the changes associated with aging, including illnesses, will generally determine the degree to which the parent-adult child conflict escalates. Naturally, all of this is compounded by conditions such as Alzheimer's, loss of bladder and/or bowel control, loss of a significant others, or necessary changes of residence, such as to assisted living quarters, convalescent homes, or even moving in with an adult child. Suddenly, parents have to allow themselves to be cared for by their children. The stark reality of aging and one's own mortality is never more defined. Parents do not want to be a burden to their children but recognize they need help.
For the adult child, there too exist conflicts. Watching a parent age also beginsto define the adult child's mortality. The adult child begins to struggle with the concept of role reversal. He or she must now not only be responsible for any children in the family and themselves as they prepare for aging, but must also take the needs of the aging parent(s) into consideration. Then the emotion of guilt enters the scene as the adult child feels remorse for having any negative thoughts. "What a bad person I must be to resent having to care for my parents when they gave so much of themselves to me!"
All should know such mixed emotions are perfectly normal. Rather than suppress such feelings, they should be openly discussed with other family members in an honest and supportive fashion. Attempting to repress such powerful emotions in secrecy out of guilt only exacerbates the whole situation. Educating oneself and possibly seeking assistance from a professional can often avert difficulties or stem the deterioration of a current situation.
It IS a real role reversal. It IS often difficult. It IS a normal part of the life cycle of human beings, and we all experience it to some degree. It IS a delicate balancing act. The most important point is that the aging parent(s) should be treated with dignity and respect while ensuring their safety and well-being. Openness allows a secure forum for both. No one says it is going to be easy. And, by the way, if you have children, how you treat your aging parent(s) will be a model for how your children are to treat you!!
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