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Caregiving for a Parent: More Partnership Than Role Reversal, Demanding Adaptability, Patience and Self-Care

The subject of being a caregiver for an aging parent is very familiar to readers of the AgingOptions Blog, especially now when the COVID pandemic has prompted a societal shift toward more and more adults taking an active role in caring for their parents. But even in the best of circumstances, caregiving can be a real shock to the system, and without some preparation and support you can quickly find yourself exhausted, burnt out, and anxious.

That’s why we thought this article from NextAvenue was very timely. In it, freelance writer Michele C. Hollow gives us a window into the caregiving world, some gentle advice for how to manage the responsibility successfully, and an overall sense of being less alone in what can be a really tough—but rewarding—role. Hollow emphasizes that it’s essential to think of caring for an aging parent, not as a “role reversal” – where the child becomes the parent, and vice versa – but as a partnership. It’s a healthy approach.

Michele’s Personal Story

The article begins with some background. Her perspective is spot on, because Hollow isn’t just writing about this topic from arm’s length: she lives it.

“My journey of caring for my mom started a year ago,” Hollow writes in the NextAvenue article. “She’s 90, worked as a teacher, taught art classes in her community and volunteered at two local community centers. She took care of my dad, who died a few years ago.”

Hollow’s connection to her aging mom—who is in reasonable health aside from failing hearing and some cognitive decline—began as daily phone calls and once-a-week visits, which often included trips to medical appointments. “I manage her finances and have Power of Attorney,” Hollow writes. “She wasn’t paying her bills and called to say her cable was turned off. Now, those bills come to my house.”

For now, Hollow’s mom continues to live alone at home in a NORC, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, with a visiting nurse. “NORCs work to keep older adults in their homes for as long as their health permits,” Hollow explains. “My mom told me several times that she wants to stay put. For now, that’s our plan.”

Caregiving as a Partnership

Caregiving experts are quick to point out that collaboration with your parent is key. Amy Cameron O’Rourke, a certified care manager, told Hollow, “Approach [caregiving] as a partnership. If you see it as a form of role reversal, you’ll be unsuccessful because you’re not reversing roles. You don’t talk to your parents like they’re six. It’s a collaborative effort with joint decisions.”

She added, “It’s learning to slow down and do things at your parent’s pace. Slowing down is a life lesson. Some of my greatest memories are when I’m not running around and I think back to times spent with my parents at their pace. It’s also about taking care of yourself and having a support system in place to manage the anxiety and stress that inevitably arise when parents are in their fragile years.”

And this, Hollow’s article emphasizes, speaks to one of the most important—and arguably, the hardest—aspects of successfully caregiving: letting go of the need to control. Stepping in when a situation is unsafe is one thing, but letting your parents have their independence makes everything much smoother emotionally.

“Situations don’t always go according to plan,” Cameron O’Rourke said. “Your parent may refuse to follow your wishes. Save that controlling nature for the big decisions, not the minor ones.”

Navigating the Relationship

If the relationship between you and your parent is difficult, experts advise, you need to ask yourself: how would you feel if you were to step back and do nothing for them? Would hiring someone else to care for your parent be healthier for both of you? Cameron O’Rourke also recommends therapy for strained relationships: “It may bring you closer to your parent or leave you feeling okay even if the relationship remains broken.”

Regardless, experts agree that it’s the time together that really matters. Cameron O’Rourke told Hollow she enjoyed watching TV with her aging mom and doing her nails. “It’s not always about doctor visits,” she said. “It’s about spending time together.”

Focus on the Present

Another women cited in the NextAvenue article, Patricia San Pedro, has an aging father with hydrocephalus, who is living in an assisted living facility in Florida. San Pedro used to care for him at home until he needed help being lifted, which was unsafe for her to do alone. But she visits him most evenings so that they can have dinner together. 

Hollow writes, “San Pedro takes her dad on car rides to visit family, plays his favorite music, and takes videos of him. She also takes care of herself by walking three miles a day, taking photos which are currently part of a gallery show, playing music and dancing.”

Watching your parent age is very difficult, San Pedro told Hollow, but focusing on the present can help, as well as surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family. “I have a support group of friends that I am grateful for. And I’m grateful to my stepmom. She loves my father and spends a lot of time with him.”  She adds, “My dad wants me to take care of myself. I know he’d be disappointed if I didn’t.”

Recognizing Your Limitations

In a final illustration, Hollow writes about Tammy Hopps, whose mother—Ardis—dealt with various stressful health issues. “She would have a health crisis and I would take her to the emergency room,” Hopps said. “She’d spend time there, then go to transitional care, and then come home. It occurred often enough that I kept a go bag filled with meds, power bars, my laptop and other necessities on hand.”

While Hopps’ employer was understanding, the roller coaster of stress was difficult for her to handle. Realizing that this would not be sustainable long-term, Hopps discovered Lifespark, a medical company based in Minnesota that helps older adults navigate health care options. This changed the game completely for Tammy and her mother.

Hollow writes, “With medical support from Lifespark, (a nurse comes when needed), Hopps, who lives five minutes away from her mother, is able to keep her mom in her own home.”

As with the others in the article, Hopps believes in enjoying the time she still has with her mom. “We talk frankly about quality of life over quantity,” Hopps said. “She’s told me she doesn’t want me sacrificing my life for hers. I enjoy being with her. We recently took a trip to a few casinos. We had a couple of bucks and the greatest time together.”

Have Resources at Hand

To close, Hollow quotes Veronica Simes, a nurse care coordinator at Connections Wellness Group, who understands how hard it is for caregivers to ask for help.

“The good news,” Simes said, “is there are resources to assist individuals as they care for their loved ones.” Simes also encourages caregivers to make lists of resources in advance, so that you’re not struggling to find support during the most stressful times or in a crisis. She suggests reframing caregiving “from a focus of decline to an opportunity for service to the loved one who has cared for you over the years. This shift in mindset can be a gift.”

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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)