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Why the phrase "Parenting Your Parents" is demeaning

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

The terms "parenting your parents" and "role reversal" have become nearly universal when referring to adult children caring for their aging parents. However, we should be careful of the words we use because language can determine how we act. Our parents deserve the dignity of being treated as adults.

Why the Phrase "Parenting Your Parents" is Demeaning

As our parents age and their needs increase, it can feel like you are changing roles with them. They need help managing their money, they need rides to get where they want to go and you need to go with them to the doctor. You may even be helping them bathe and use the bathroom. If this isn't parenting our parents or role reversal, what is it?

Over the span of two decades, I cared for a total of seven elders. Everything above is something that I did for one or more of them. I even thought at one time of titling my book Role Reversal. Fortunately, I saw there was already one book (or more) with that title and decided on Minding Our Elders. I say fortunately, because as I matured in my caregiving role and had the perspective of time, I realized that I really didn't feel as though I was reversing roles. And I never felt as though I was parenting my parents.

A New Role for the Caregiver

What I was doing was taking on a different role. I was learning to be a caregiver, while trying my best--although I know I often failed--to preserve their dignity. I believe strongly in the value of a person's legacy. No matter how cruel the losses of aging, the person's past life is not rendered null and void.

Be Careful to Respect Legacy

When I speak on this topic to caregiving groups I often use the analogy of a rose. The bud of the rose is dewy, fresh and full of promise. It eventually opens until it reaches full bloom then gradually fades in color and freshness, dropping petals along the way until nothing is left but the nub of death. The life cycle of that flower has passed, but during that time, what joy it has given! Was it part of a bridal bouquet? Was it sent to a sick loved one in a hospital? Or was it just enjoyed while still on the bush, as an elderly couple walked by holding hands?

If the legacy of a rose has meaning how much more does the legacy of a human life represent? With this image in mind, I ask my listeners and readers to hear themselves as they talk with their aging parents. How do they sound? Are they condescending because they have to repeat things to Dad? Do they complain to their friends that their mom has become so helpless they fell like they've "reversed roles?"

Handling Your Thoughts

If you, as a caregiver, haven't thought this or said these words, you are an unusual caregiver. Thoughts are just thoughts, but try to be aware and learn from those fleeting moments. Examine your thinking with the knowledge that we have a tendency to act as we think and speak and your care receivers may pick up on that attitude, even if it's unspoken.

You have a right to all of your thoughts, but if you feel too negative, you may want to seek counseling with a professional counselor, a spiritual leader, a good friend or anyone you feel understands what a caregiver goes through.

Understand that these thoughts you are having are not bad and they shouldn't add to caregiver guilt. They are normal. But when they translate into actions and you begin to care for your parents with the mindset that your parents are like children, you and they will suffer. For your parents are the people who, whether they did it well or not, brought you up in this world and provided for you. They have lived a life. They are not infants with new hope ahead of them.

They are elders who leave a legacy and they deserve to be treated as such.