How to Cope When It’s Time to Care for an Elderly Parent

A hundred years ago, most middle-aged people didn’t have to worry much about caring for their elderly parents. But nowadays, Americans are living longer than ever and now it’s not uncommon for an aging parent to need care for years or even decades at the end of his or her life. Much of that burden is falling to adult children, who are shouldering the responsibility of caring for those who once cared for them.

But caring for aging parents raises a host of emotional and practical issues. Elderly parents and their adult children may struggle with the role reversal that occurs when the formerly cared-for become the caregivers. It can be emotionally difficult for adult children to see their parents’ decline, just as it can be tough for the parents to let their children care for them and make their decisions, instead of the other way around. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that many adult sons and daughters are raising children of their own and holding down careers. If you’re faced with caring for elderly parents, it’s vital that you get the emotional — and practical — support you need to cope with this task.

Switching Roles With Your Parent

Role reversal is one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of caring for an elder parent. As a child, you’re used to your parents caring for you, in most cases even after you became an adult. You’ve spent your life watching your parents make decisions, on their own behalf and yours. Watching your parents lose their ability to make their own decisions and care for themselves can be emotionally wracking.

But it’s also difficult for the parents to give up their long-held status as your caregivers. Old habits die hard, after all, and it can be galling to have your adult child — who is, no matter his or her age, still your child — reminding you to take your medications, lock your doors, and eat your vegetables. Many adult children don’t feel right giving their parents orders; while it might be one thing to tell your 5-year-old son to eat his broccoli, it’s quite another to deliver that command to the mother who spent years giving you the orders.

Besides, aging parents and their adult children often see the care-giving situation differently. While adult children may want to see their parents retain or recover their health, the aging parents often understand that lost faculties will probably never return. When your aging parent seems resistant to your attempts to give care, remember that they are just as frustrated with the situation as you are. Try to honor your parent’s desires, even if they sometimes conflict with your own.

Finding Emotional Support

Caring for an elder parent can be emotionally draining, especially when you haven’t had the greatest relationship or the parent doesn’t seem as grateful for your care as you would like. One way to ease the emotional stress is to share the care-giving burden with others in your network — siblings, your spouse or romantic partner, friends, neighbors, or even your parent’s romantic partner or stepchildren. Even if these people can’t help out much, they still may be able to provide a shoulder to cry on when you need to vent. Support groups are also great for this — and they’re often available through local community centers and churches.

Getting Practical Support

Of course, you need more than a support group to help you care for an aging parent — you need money, medical expertise, and other resources. Your parent may have long-term care insurance, Medicare, or retirement funds that can help with this. Home care software can help you, your parent, other loved ones, and nursing staff keep track of your loved one’s medical care. Your parent may even be able to receive basic medical care by consulting with a physician online.

No matter what your elder care needs, there are services in your local community that can help you find assistance, including home health aides, nursing care at home, residential nursing care, and more. If you are paying for at least 50 percent of your loved one’s living costs, you may be able to claim him or her as a dependent on your tax return. Use the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator to find services in your area that meet your loved one’s unique needs.

Caring for an elderly parent isn’t easy; it’s a task that takes a huge investment of time and, often, cash. Elder care is often emotionally draining, too, especially due to the role reversal that is typically involved. Make sure you get the emotional and practical support you need to give your loved one the best possible care.