No, Caring For Your Parents Is Not “Parenting”

Caring for an aging parent is often referred to as a role reversal when the parent becomes the child and the adult child becomes the parent. It’s an understandable analogy; adult children are often called on to help their parents with activities of daily living like bathing, dressing and feeding. If a parent has cognitive issues, adult children may find themselves repeating simple requests or addressing behavior issues, making decisions on behalf of their parent by acting as a financial or health proxy. And yes, these are things we do for our children. But eldercare is not parenting; it is not a role reversal.

Why not? If the tasks are similar to parenting, if we are now caring for the people who once cared for us, haven’t our roles shifted? No. Our roles haven’t shifted, our relationships have.

You may think this is just semantics, but words matter. When we view eldercare as parenting our parents we infantilize them. Our elderly parents are still adults, regardless of their health or abilities. They still deserve autonomy, although perhaps to varying degrees depending on their cognitive state. And if one day, you become infirm, won’t you want your years of experience and living to still count?

On the flip side, when we view eldercare as a relationship, rather than a role, shift, we normalize old age, and caregiving, and we expand our views of adulthood. As a society, we have typically viewed adulthood as somewhere from the 20s to the 60s. People seventy and older are viewed as elderly or senior citizens – but they are still adults and deserve to be thought of and treated as such. Just as a 20-something looks and feels differently than a 50-something, so too does an octogenarian. It’s all normal.

And here’s why this matters for adult children: If we can accept eldercare as a natural phase of our relationship with our parents, we are less likely to be frustrated and frightened by caregiving. We are not taking over; not “parenting.”  Our relationship is shifting and evolving. Hopefully, at some point around age 20 – give or take a few years, your relationship with your parents shifted from child/adult to adult/adult. That’s a very normal transition and comes with an unspoken understanding that you now have new norms for the relationship. So isn’t it natural that as our parents age, our relationships shift again – this time to adult/older adult? When you look at this phase of life from that perspective, isn’t it natural, and even okay, that the norms are changing again?


10 comments on “No, Caring For Your Parents Is Not “Parenting””

  1. Beth Havey Reply

    Saying it’s a shift works the best. However, when a parent has dementia that is a bigger change. Yes, you are not parenting, but you are entering into a phase of the relationship where serious matters that were once handled by the parent are now handled by you. Banking, medical appointments, taking away driving privileges, and often housing. It’s a journey. One good thing: when it’s your turn to do the age shift, you will be more open to your children’s thoughts.

  2. Civilla Morgan Reply

    This is an article I wish I had read months ago when an acquaintance advised me that caring for my parents is like caring for the children I never had. I just left it alone. People mean well generally, but I should have said, ‘not exactly!’ Thanks for a great article!

  3. Mary Calderon Reply

    Good article! Thanks for the perspective. I think just like we have financial plans for our future (putting away funds during our working years for retirement), there should be a health care plan in place as well for those of us who are caregivers to parents with serious health issues (My mom had a serious strove over a year ago). Having a plan in place would help adult children know our parents’ wishes for caregiving… do they want home health care, how much involvement from outside help, etc., at what point would they agree to assisted living or a nursing home? Such a plan would be a huge help for adult children who are geographically far from the parents they’re caring for.

  4. Me Reply

    Sometimes, it’s the parents who treat caregiving as role reversal – they relinquish the obligation to make their own decisions, and they choose to act like children instead of older adults. Maybe it’s a sense of loss of their identity if they aren’t as independent as they were accustomed to being, or maybe they are just tired of being responsible…

  5. Catherine Burlin Reply

    I always knew I would care for my parents. My Mother cared for my Dad, and I cared for her when it was time. With mild dementia it wasn’t difficult,but it wore on me as I lost my independence. I found a daycare for 1/2 days and M-W-F. That was my outlet! She lived to be 98, died healthy and happy!

  6. Ellen Reply

    A much needed article. I have talked to many people my age (75) who resent their children’s condescending attitudes. Personally, I went no contact and will never again even accept help from our kids. It isn’t worth it and never will be.

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