When Parent-Child Lines become Fuzzy

Click on the Patriot-News link below to see a Doonesbury cartoon about role reversals:
– The Patriot-News.

A response to an AgingCare.com article:
http://www.agingcare.com  Home>>Caregiver Support>>Family & Relationships>>Articles>>Switching Roles:  Coping with Your Rebellious Aging Parent.

When I was an Assessor for the Area Agency on Aging I often met with senior women and their daughters.  When I directed a question to the senior, it was not uncommon to hear the response, “Ask my mother here,” while indicating her daughter.  Clearly they were referring to the issue of “role reversal,” which can be petty doggone tricky to navigate.

In the AgingCare.com article, Switching Roles: Coping with Your Rebellious Aging Parent,

Now who's rebellious?

Now who’s rebellious?

Carolyn Rosenblatt states:  “You can’t just let a parent with signs of dementia or other significant memory problems go on as if nothing were wrong, even if she gets upset with you. At some point, the adult child who loves a parent must step in. You may end up setting limits, making new rules, or taking over certain decisions. This is not easy for most people. We are so accustomed to our parent making her own decisions, that to dare to tell her what to do is very uncomfortable.”

Carolyn is correct that reversing roles with parents is very difficult.  But it is not always clear cut as to when to do so.  When it is determined that you must step in, and the parent-child line becomes fuzzy, it is always important demonstrate respect for everyone’s roles.

An initial question to consider is:  What takes precedence?  Autonomy or safety?  If the senior’s values and wishes are not respected and taken into consideration, you are bound to run into resistance and conflict. After all, who doesn’t want to remain in the driver’s seat of life?

It is imperative to respect your loved one’s dignity—it is, after all, empowering to retain the ability to make choices and decisions. Show respect for your care receivers’ autonomy by seeking opinions and preferences throughout the care-planning process. Promoting as much independence as possible is key.  Furthermore, caregiving responsibilities generally escalate as needs multiply over time. The less able our loved ones become, the greater their sense of independence lost. And as needs escalate, so does conflict.

Two huge problem areas that Carolyn Rosenblatt mentions are driving and financial management.  These are both referred to in “What to Do about Mama?”  For example:

  • When our parents lose their ability to drive they require assistance with transportation, shopping, and running errands. And of course, since driving is synonymous with independence for most seniors, this issue may cause particularly intense conflict. As one son recalled: “When my father insisted that my grandfather stop driving, Grandpa, a generally sweet and mild-mannered gentleman, began to call Dad on the phone to curse him out soundly. I was glad that I never had to confront this issue with my own father!”
     
  • “As my dad began having problems managing the finances, it was difficult to ease him away from the task so I could handle the accounts. Eventually, we worked it out so he would ‘check’ everything I did, which kept him in the loop, but gave me full responsibility for handling bills.”

In my own personal caregiving situation, my husband and I felt that living in the safety of our home would allow his mother to be more independent and active for a longer period of time. We felt that although the first two years of our caregiving arrangement were really quite good, there was always an undercurrent that somehow my mother-in-law perceived me (her primary caregiver) as a threat to her autonomy.

I tried very hard to respect her independence.  I tried to empower her by presenting options and respecting her choices.  But if she perceived me “directing” in any way she felt her independence was threatened and I sensed her resentment.  Ultimately, I felt that most of the escalating friction could be attributed to my role as an in-law caregiver.  Switching roles, or even the perception of switching roles, is indeed difficult.