It can be an emotionally difficult transition for many, the moment you realise you’ve become a carer for your ageing parent. Your whole life, you’ve been the child and they’ve been the parent, but when ‘parentification’ happens and the roles reverse, it can be a tricky dynamic for both parties to navigate.
It’s likely that your relationship with your parent will change over time, which is a normal and natural progression of life. However, the degree to which your relationship changes will depend on you and your life, your parent, the nature of their ailments, their living situation, and many other factors.
Let’s explore a few of the most common relationship changes that can occur, as well as how to navigate them in a way that strengthens rather than weakens your bond.
As your parent gets older, it’s possible that their attitude and behaviour will start to change. This could simply be because their bodies and minds are ageing, or it could be due to an illness or condition. Some conditions could affect your parent’s pride, dignity, independence and sense of self. Others could affect their memory or cause them to become fearful, delusional or depressed.
As you’re now in the position to ensure your parent’s safety and wellbeing, these changes can directly affect your relationship – especially if it makes them more difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis. But on more of an emotional level, these changes can be painful to experience if you’re watching someone you love change considerably, sometimes to the point where the parent you once knew seems unfamiliar.
Everyone manages this transition differently. You might find that getting external help – be it for you or your parent – is the best way to manage. Here are a few suggestions…
The power dynamic in yours and your parent’s relationship can shift quite a bit when role reversal takes place. This can be an emotional and confusing transition for both of you to navigate as your new roles come to the surface. Your parent is likely to sense a loss of control and they may resist this, whereas you might feel as though you’re not ready or prepared to become the ‘responsible’ one. Whatever complicated feelings are at play, one of the best ways to ease into the transition is to continue to treat your parent as just that – your parent. It can help not to solely define yourself as ‘carer’ and to perform that role 100% of the time. Though you might be looking after your parent in many areas of their life, try to not to treat them differently and remember to see them for who they are, rather than their condition. Where possible, try to keep elements of your former dynamic intact and give them opportunities to perform the role of your parent.
Becoming your parent’s main source of care can be challenging in and of itself, but there are other things that can also add to the tension. These things can include practical stressors like time management and fitting their care into your already busy schedule, fear and worry regarding the financial implications of them needing care, or anxiety over future uncertainty, among many other unique factors. Tension in your relationship can also arise when either your help is met with resistance or, where too much expectation and responsibility is placed upon you.
On one side of the coin is the tension you experience from time to time, and on the other side of the coin lives the tension that your parent also experiences. It’s possible that this role reversal could leave them feeling embarrassed, ashamed, guilty or like a burden, or frustrated at their loss of independence and annoyed with your ‘interference’ in their day-to-day life.
It’s likely that these tensions can result in disagreements and bickering. When tensions come to a head, try to defuse the situation rather than let it escalate. The best thing to do in these situations is to take some time to breathe and let the heat between you cool down. Once you’re both in a calmer state, talk openly with one another and lead the conversation with love. Let your feelings be known, and patiently listen when they do the same. Together, try to identify where you can both improve the situation.
Yes, your relationship is changing, but not all these changes will be negative. Many people find that caring for their elder parent has strengthened their relationship. These changes are human and natural and can be a time for deeper connection and bonding. When significant changes occur, often the important things in life come into focus and past grievances become smaller or even insignificant in comparison.
Caring for your parent could mean more quality time spent together, it could offer an opportunity to get to know one another in different capacities, and it can allow you both to become more connected through the full-circle, shared experience of relying one another throughout life.