The premise of reversing roles as our parent’s age is simple: parent’s decline in their ability to perform certain activities of daily living and we, as their adult children, step in to perform those functions for them (or have a caregiver handle that role). However, if we look a bit closer at this topic, that simple premise is loaded with serious issues that need to be dealt with in order to make the “role reversal” transition smooth.
The easy part to this is understanding that as we age, we lose functionality in a number of areas; such as memory, physical strength, and declining senses of hearing and sight. Typically, we won’t be able to bend down and play with our grandchildren as easily as we did with our own children. Perhaps we’ll forget why we drove over to the drug store, and then possibly even forget how to drive back home. For some, taking a simple shower might end up as a potentially life-threatening activity that we postpone more often than we should. As our ability to taste declines, so does our interest in eating, in turn negatively impacting our health. The potential list is endless, and yet it all seems to make sense because we are getting older.
The difficult part is dealing with this inevitable reality. First, we must understand that our parents have feelings during this aging process and that we need to learn to work within those realities. For example, aging parents fear becoming powerless in their own lives; often tied to their own self-respect. (For our parents to lose their parental role is emotionally devastating. For the adult children to suddenly be thrust into being responsible for the well-being of their parents is both confusing and challenging.) Adding to the difficulty of this inevitable reality, there are years of miscommunication, unspoken feelings, and issues of control that link from your childhood into your adulthood.
To prevent these issues from spilling over into your parenting style, consider taking a different posture when it comes to the typical “role reversal” (or, becoming the parent of the parent) image most of us have developed and realize a few realities. First, our parents will always be our parents and we will always be there child, regardless of our parents’ mental or physical state. Second, when you consider the strict definition of role reversal where the parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent, it is simply preposterous.
We may become caregivers to our parents by helping them with eating, taking a shower, or driving them to the store; but we can never become the parent to our parents. Being a child means that the young person has his/her entire life ahead of him/her to learn and grow and develop into an adult.
Our parents have already gone through that phase, emerged as successful adults and now are experiencing many, many losses that are both physical and mental. But they are not the same as a child who has yet to experience a full life. We cannot treat our parents as children. Our parents are not children. They have earned our respect and they deserve to be treated with the dignity that a full life warrants.
So, as Carol Bradley Bursack wrote in her article, Children and Elderly Parents are Different:
Role Reversal? Never. I was their caregiver when they needed me, but always, always, they were the parents and I the daughter. No convenient, catchy little phrase will change that.