What happens when the child becomes the parent?

Taking care of your parents later in life is an important responsibility not to be underestimated.
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.