~By Donna Clem, One Senior Place Chief Operating Officer~

“Take my parents, please!” These words have been thought, said, whispered, and screamed by many of us with aging parents. How do we juggle the complexities of our own lives, managing to raise a family, maintaining our careers, and more while navigating the concerns or denials of our aging parents? It can become very complicated.
 Our parents are living longer than previous generations. This brings with it unique opportunities to our family unit and society. Today, it is fairly common place to have three generations (or even four) within the family unit. For the most part, this creates a new norm, unlike previous generations. With this new norm, there are unique opportunities for children to know, interact and have meaningful relationships with grandparents and even great-grandparents. This multi-generational family can enrich lives, bring a new dynamic to the family unit that can be positive, but it also provides unique challenges to manage.
The challenges we face with our aging parents can be significant, particularly if we become the primary caregiver for our parents. Typically the primary caregiver role is delegated to the female family member living closest to the aging parent. This role is common for daughters or daughters-in-law, but might include grand-daughters or other female members. Certainly there are exceptions to this statistical norm which includes sons or extended family members.

In the course of the normal aging process, our bodies slow down – mentally and physically. Seeing these changes in our parents can be shocking and create a variety of responses. These responses can range from denial to anger. Knowing how to respond to these noticed declines can be complicated by our role in the family, our relationship and dynamic with our parents, and our parents’ views of their own aging process. Does our role change as we age? Do we become the parents of our parents? Do our parents become our children? Our reactions to the reality that our parents are aging can vary from person to person. How we react, and what role we play in the care of our aging parents, can also vary greatly.

The concept of Role Reversal was a theory prevalent in the late 1950’s and 60’s, though it is not the accepted theory of aging in today’s world. Even so, there are some similar components to caring for children and caring for our seniors. We plan, research options, consider alternatives and seek advice when we care for our children. But the role of our parents within the family unit remains the same throughout the life span. Our parent’s ability to fulfill their role may change with time, and we should be willing and ready to accept that change while honoring their position in the family and remaining respectful of their role. After all, autonomy is what we strive for throughout much of childhood, and young adulthood. We thirst to be independent, make our own decisions and be the person we want to be! The quest for self-rule remains as we age. I would venture to say that for the Greatest Generation, autonomy is even stronger than other generations. Our parents’ generation believed in “pulling yourself up by your boot straps,” “just keep moving forward,” and “if you have a problem, deal with it – you don’t need to talk about it.” These are many adages that were common themes throughout their life. So for our aging generation, many of them have a fierce desire to remain independent no matter what, and this can influence their hesitancy to accept help when needed. Conditions like memory loss and dementia can decrease the ability to remain autonomous. As dementia increases, autonomy decreases, and this can become a delicate balance for everyone involved in the care of our seniors. One of our greatest challenges is to honor the wishes our parents while ensuring their well-being.

For families living at a distance another layer of complexity is added to the care of our parents. For this scenario, consider using a professional Elder Care Manager. This professional provides a unique perspective to the care of our aging parents. Objective, experienced, and knowledgeable of the aging process as well as community resources and entitlement benefits, the Elder Care Manager can help seniors live well with dignity preserved and their autonomy protected. This professional is also well-versed in helping families successfully maneuver through the complexities of our family dynamic, set realistic goals, prioritize challenges facing our parents, and preserve their autonomy as much as possible.

As we care for our aging parents it is important to remember a few suggestions.

  1.  Your parents remain the matriarch and patriarch of your family unit, no matter what their age and regardless of their medical complexities.
  2. Have conversations with your parents. Ask questions about what they would want should they need care in the future.
  3. Think about what role is healthy for yourself when caring for your aging parents.
  4. Identify other mechanisms of support for your parents – other siblings, friends, neighbors, church community. Understand what is realistic for these members of the support system.
  5. Consider the use of an Elder Care Manager.

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