The Challenges of Reversing Roles with Aging Parents
by Candy Arrington
In conversation with a friend, I listened as she poured out her frustration regarding interaction with her aging parents. Her mother’s anxiety issues and her dad’s on-going health problems occupy her thoughts and consume much of her time. She wants to encourage and support her parents, but doctor visits, hospital and rehab facility stays, medication management, squabbles between her parents, and their resistance to her suggestions are taking a toll on her physically and emotionally.
I remember this season of life well, and looking back on my own experience caring for aging parents, I have wisdom now I didn’t possess at the time.
The Changes of Aging
In recent years, advances in medical technology and preventive care have dramatically increased life expectancy. It is no longer unusual for people to live to 90 and beyond. With this increased life span come challenges for seniors and their adult children. In many cases, senior adults face emotional and physical problems that precipitate parent-child role reversal. Maintaining the delicate balance between helping parents and allowing them to maintain independence is a tightrope walk.
When interacting with aging parents, here are some factors to remember:
- Loneliness – Often, one parent dies leaving the other grieving and alone. In some cases, grief is coupled with financial concerns and business matters never handled before. Additionally, our parents’ friends are predeceasing them, making them increasingly aware of their own mortality and compounding loss.
- Fear and Anxiety – Worries increase with aging. Even Christians face uncertainty and fear regarding death. While we have the hope of eternity, many have concerns about pain prior to death and what the end-of-life journey will entail. Health, finances, and global issues beyond their control loom as major stress-producers. Sometimes, seniors pay bills with charges they don’t understand, give out personal financial information, or accept telemarketing offers rather than asking questions or getting advice from a family member. Situations that used to be handled with ease and wisdom are often a great source of perplexity for the aging.
- Failing Health – Health issues dominate the minds and conversations of most of our parents and their friends. The cost of medications and the emotional side-effects inherent with many drugs magnify and complicate medical issues. Increased physical limitations make simple tasks like drying hair, climbing stairs, or reaching shelves impossible. Even everyday activities like bill-paying, yard work, or light housework can feel like impossible hurdles.
- Pride, Denial, and Frustration – Esther’s eyesight is failing, yet she claims she doesn’t need glasses. Driving is a challenge during the day and even more difficult at night, but she maintains her vision isn’t a problem. John’s hearing loss is noticeable to everyone, but he refuses to have it checked. Tom makes an angry call to his utility company about service charges and late payment fees on his account. He insists he paid the bill. When he discovers the payment envelope wedged between his car seats weeks later, he’s too embarrassed to admit what happened. Most seniors want to function independently as long as possible, despite risks to themselves and others, and go to great lengths to hide limitations and confusion.
Changing Roles – Doing Your Part
When you feel frustrated by the amount of time and level of support your aging parents require, remember how much they have done for you over the years. Even if scars exist in your relationship, now is an opportunity to heal wounds and show unconditional love, even if difficult. Consider the following:
The command to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12a) is a directive we never outgrow. No matter how annoying the attitudes and actions of our parents as they grow older, we still owe them attention, time, and respect. Leviticus 19:3 instructs us to respect our mother and father. The way we interact with our aging parents serves as a model for our own children. The way we treat our parents will likely determine their responses to us as we age.
While not many of us are in a position to support our aging parents financially, we can offer emotional support and practical help. Issues that seem inconsequential to us are cause for anxiety and tears for our parents. Be careful not to blow off their fears as silly. Aging parents need encouragement and reassurance. Practical ways you can help include replacing ceiling light bulbs, rolling trash out to the street, or purchasing assistive devices to make everyday activities easier. Something simple can be an enormous gift.
Our parents are a great source of wisdom. Don’t underestimate the value of their life experiences. Slow down long enough to listen, glean wisdom, and benefit from their stories. Allow parents the opportunity to take a sentimental journey by asking questions about their younger years. Record these reminiscences either in a journal or on audio. One day, you’ll treasure these written or verbal records.
Most of us are juggling too much, and carving out time, energy, and emotional support for aging parents seems an impossible task. But we are reminded in Galatians 6:9 not to grow weary in doing good. Love with equal or greater patience than you give young children. God’s infinite patience with us serves as a motivator.
The most powerful action we can employ is a constant attitude of prayer. Pray daily for the physical and emotional well-being of your parents and your interaction with them. While we can’t stop our parents’ aging or increased need for assistance, we can change our attitudes. Remembering the sacrifices parents made for us over the years helps bring joy in the ability to give back and meet their needs now. Parent support isn’t easy, but we don’t have to transition to this role reversal in our own strength. God is faithful to provide stamina, resources, and wisdom to help us aid our parents with patience and grace.
Candy Arrington has written hundreds of articles and devotionals, often on tough topics. Her writing provides practical support and insights for navigating difficult circumstances. Candy’s books include When Your Aging Parent Needs Care: Practical Help for This Season of Life and AFTERSHOCK: Help, Hope, and Healing in the Wake of Suicide. A native South Carolinian, Candy gains writing inspiration from historic architecture, vintage photographs, nature, and the application of biblical wisdom to everyday life. Learn more about Candy at www.CandyArrington.com, where you can also read her blog, “Forward Motion: Moving Beyond What Holds You Back.”
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