What happens when the child becomes the parent?

dad and daughter sit on the steps
Taking care of your parents later in life is an important responsibility not to be underestimated.

It's a common proud refrain repeated by young children to their peers: "My dad is stronger than your dad." Or, "My mom is prettier than your mom." For many youngsters, their parents are the be-all and end-all: superior beings who can do almost anything short of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Of course, as children grow, they start noticing mom and dad's flaws. And, eventually, they see that the superheroes who raised them are mere mortals. Perhaps this reality becomes most obvious the day when the child, as an adult, realizes his or her parent is now the dependent, in need of care, nurturing, supervision and guidance.

Such a role reversal is often described as a child becoming a "parent" to his or her mom or dad, and the shift usually occurs as age or illness makes it difficult for the parent to continue functioning on his or her own. This can be a difficult stage of life for both parties. For the adult child, it can mean losing the sense of security that came with a hierarchal family order. It can also prompt new -- sometimes difficult -- responsibilities. The parent, on the other hand, feels he or she is at risk of losing his or her independence, authority and dignity.


If you find yourself as your mom or dad's caregiver, it's OK to grieve the loss of your old parent-child relationship. The important thing is that you're now there for your parent, honoring the sacrifices they once made for you. To do this successfully (while sidestepping as many emotional landmines as possible):

  • Participate in open communication with your parent and any other parties involved, such as your siblings or your parent's health care providers
  • Promote independence in the parent, whenever possible, even if there are limitations
  • Reach out to support systems, such as family members and volunteer groups
  • Observe your parent's routines and habits, and be aware of any changes
  • Familiarize yourself with your parent's financial and insurance details
  • Educate yourself on eldercare issues

To learn more about "parenting" your parent, take a look at the comprehensive tips on the next page.


Tips on Being a Caregiver to Your Parent

If being a parent is the hardest job in the world, then being a caregiver to your parent is possibly the second hardest. With this role comes many legal, financial, health and familial responsibilities. To guide you through the experience, we have some advice on taking care of your elderly parent:

1. Respect your parent's experience and knowledge. When you become like a parent to your own parent, it's easy to infantilize him or her. Remember that your mom or dad's failing health doesn't negate his or her lifetime of know-how.


2. Let your parent continue pursuing areas of interest. Unless your parent's interest is something like bull riding or base jumping, you can probably find ways to help him or her stay connected to past pursuits. For instance, if your mother was an art lover, take her on excursions to art museums. Or, if she's bed-bound, buy her a new art book.

3. Allow your parent to participate. Make sure he or she still has the opportunity to lend advice or connect with others. One way you can do this is to help your mom or dad select gifts to give out during the holidays. Even if he or she is homebound, this helps him or her remain a part of family traditions.

4. Seek out independence aids. No one wants to lose autonomy. While there are some things your parents may no longer be able to do, make sure they are able to accomplish as many things as possible on their own by providing products designed to make day-to-day tasks accessible.

5. Make sure your parents' living area is safe and accessible. This can include simple things like ensuring hallway lighting fixtures have working bulbs or removing trip-and-fall hazards, like throw rugs.

6. Abide by your commitments. It's not healthy for you to be at anyone's beck and call, but when it comes to your mom or dad, be sure to honor your promises and let him or her know what can be expected from you -- and when it can be expected.

7. Visit often. Loneliness can worsen a person's physical and emotional states. Make sure you spend plenty of time just visiting with your parent. Encourage others, like your siblings or your parents' friends, to stop by as well.

8. Be a health care advocate for your mom or dad. Go with your parent on doctor visits so that you can ask questions and record important information. Make sure your mom or dad is following the medication dosage schedule prescribed by his or her physician.

9. Know where your parent stands financially and legally. It's important to know details of your parent's accounts, such as whether or not they have long-term care insurance, which lawyer holds a copy of their will and whether or not their monthly bills are being paid on time.

Taking care of your parents later in life is an important responsibility not to be underestimated. Visit the links and resources on the next page for more information.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • AARP. "Holidays are a Good Time to Assess How Your Elderly Parents are Faring." Dec. 2011. (Jan. 4, 2012) http://www.aarp.org/relationships/caregiving/info-12-2010/checking_on_aging_parents.html
  • Pierret, Charles R. "The 'sandwich generation': women caring for parents and children." Monthly Labor Review. September 2006. (Jan. 4, 2012) http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2006/09/art1full.pdf
  • Resnick, Meredith. "My Parent Has Become My Child." Psychology Today. Sept. 22, 2011. (Jan. 4, 2012) http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/more-caregiving/201109/my-parent-has-become-my-child
  • Ricks, Marie Calder. "When children become parents of their parents." Deseret News. Jan. 16, 2011. (Jan. 4, 2012) http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700101283/When-children-become-parents-of-their-parents.html
  • St. Clair, Patricia. "Cargiving for a Parent or Elderly Person." Caregiver.com. (Jan. 4, 2012) http://www.caregiver.com/articles/caregiver/caregiving_for_a_parent.htm