A Message from Toni Lynn Davis, Executive Director

Taking care of a Parent with Dementia is a Challenge of Reversing the Role Between Parent and Child

By Toni Lynn Davis MHA, CNHA, FACHCA
CEO/President Green Hill Inc.

Toni Lynn Davis
Executive Director

It starts one day when you notice Mom is struggling a little more than usual. Common daily activities are more difficult for her to handle, holidays a bit more stressful. Perhaps Dad appears to no longer have the strong arms that you remember holding onto as a kid, or exhibits some minor changes in the way he deals with others. Flash forward five or ten more years and now Mom or Dad is forgetful, unfocused, not remembering the important things in their life like when and, what medications to take and when to eat.

One of the best things you can do for your aging parent is to become an advocate for them, especially when a parent begins to reveal signs of poor judgment or memory loss and can’t take care of everyday activities like feeding or dressing oneself, making phone calls, or cooking. ‘Baby boomers’ with one hand still used to raise their children and the other responsible for aging parents, have been identified as the ‘endless parent’. For these multi- generational caretakers it is important to remember that there is a difference between being an advocate for your parent and running the parent’s life as you orchestrate a child’s. Treating ones parent like a child can cause depression in the elder and strain the loving bonds between elder parent and grown child. Communication between the elder parent and the child about every aspect of the parent’s life must take place early, before full signs of their inability to care for themselves, so that all the wishes of the parent can determined by them and honored by you.

The average age of admission at Green Hill, Inc. in all areas of living from independent to skilled nursing is 89 years of age. The result of people living longer is a rise in the rate of those elders having some type of dementia in their latter years. More adult children are finding themselves faced with a parenting role reversal, required to change from child to parent, and their parent to become like their child. This process happens in stages as parents become less likely to respond on their own and look to their children to make all of their decisions for them as they begin to no longer trust themselves.

About 4.1 million Americans have some kind of dementia and millions of ‘baby boomers’ are caring for their afflicted parents. Dementia can range from slight memory impairment to a total loss of identity. The incredible sadness and frustration felt by these caretaking adult children as they experience their parents losing connection to family and ultimately to themselves is an overwhelmingly taxing physical and emotional process.

Taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s Disease is challenging, and reversing the role between parent and child is never easy. This process is exacerbated if the parent or child has had an unstable relationship in the past as unrealized emotions and conflicts can surface during the caretaking process. A balanced and managed process of caring for an elder with dementia can be accomplished under any prior circumstance with thought, planning and honesty. There are many support groups and long-term care professionals available to help accomplish this goal.

Some of the classic areas of experience in the caretaker dynamic is the feeling of helplessness experienced by both caregiver and elder due to the lack of control over the dementia and its progression. The single aspect a caregiver can control is how one reacts and responds to this challenge.

The role reversal aspect of a caregiver’s experience is a common challenge. If you respond to you parent as a child the parent’s behavior will ultimately mimic a child’s. If you continue to treat your parents as an adult, their reaction to your instructions will more often be responded to with adult behavior.

When an elder has no control over their own behavior because of memory issues they will take their cue from their caregivers, including family as to how to react to stimuli. Parents will look to you for clues on how to act as they no longer can trust their own judgment. If you become angry or impatient with your parent, or with people around your parent who provide support in their care, know the parent will mimic your behavior.

All elders will require caregiving support throughout the later stages of their life. Treating your elder as a child will not affect a good quality of life or care, for either elder or caretaker. It’s important for adult caregivers to keep in mind when taking care of their elderly loved ones to treat parents with respect. Provide your elder with some areas of choice and control in their daily lives. Losing the respect and control of their lives can be devastating to the elderly and affects more than their physical health.

Engage your parent in their financial or health care decisions as long as possible. Do your best to respect their wishes in regard to their finances and health care, and involve them in any important decision making processes such as home health care, long-term nursing care, powers of attorney documents, and end-of-life wishes.

Offer continual reassurance to your parent – regardless of your parent’s physical, mental and emotional state, always attempt communication. Assume that your parent can understand you and take the time to explain what’s happening. Never discuss your parent with another person in the room as if they are not in the room.

Avoid talking or treating your parents like children – don’t boss your parents around, nag them about their habits or tell them how they should behave. Know that certain medical conditions such as dementia as well as some medications may alter your parent’s personality or attitude, and respond accordingly.

Remember to take the time to put yourself in your parent’s shoes – remember that it as an adult caring for an elderly parent, you may also find yourself in the same position as your parent someday. Stop and reflect on how you would like to be treated regardless of physical or mental limitations. Your parent deserves to be treated with respect, compassion, and dignity. A support group can be a lifeline for caregivers. You do not have to face the challenge of caring for an elderly parent alone.

Elder care support groups and resource material:

Source material:
Role Reversal for Boomers: Caring For Your Aging Parents, There comes a time when adult children must be a parent to their parents, 04/26/2010 |

Consumer Affairs | Seniors, By Jan Yager, Ph.D.