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?