7 Changes to Avoid Parenting Your Parents

by Pamela Atwood, MA, Director of Dementia Care Services

When diseases and conditions associated with aging affect parents, some people feel a “role reversal” and feel they need to parent their parents.  Effective caregivers come to know that this only leads to more conflict. Preserving the rights to make decisions, even small ones, helps individuals maintain dignity, and will minimize negative reactions. Mark Edinberg, PhD (author of Talking with Your Aging Parents) suggests that caregivers respond with reflection and understanding of the need to preserve roles. Try the following suggestions to turn “parenting your parents” phrases into more positive responses:

  • “Now I’m the parent, they’re the child” – becomes: My parents need increasing help from me. It’s hard, I may not like it, but I will face it and respect all of us.
  • “Now what, mom?” – becomes: Just a minute (or I need to talk with you a little later, I cannot concentrate on your needs right now).
  • “Stop saying that you won’t get over this stroke” –becomes: You must feel helpless and hopeless. Please know that we care, we will listen, and we’ll help you.
  • “Dad, you just don’t get it” (also said by teenagers, but that’s a different story) – becomes: Dad, I don’t think we’re on the same page. We need to talk more.
  • “My mother is always calling me up and asking for advice, can’t she make up her own mind?” – becomes: Mom, you sound like you don’t trust yourself. What’s going on?
  • “Mom, it’s three o’clock in the morning, I don’t know where you put your hairdryer.” – becomes: Mom, it is 3 o’clock in the morning. I will call you when it gets light out (but do check on her mental status, day night confusion or possibly having anxiety that can be treated).
  • “Dad, I can’t take you to the doctor’s next week, I told you that three times today.” – becomes Dad, we need to get you a note in writing so you know what is going on (and possibly taking some action to limit when calls can be made, which is easier if Dad does not have dementia.)

Dealing with communication changes when a parent has dementia is even more challenging, but can be done without reversing roles. Check our favorite resources and review our blog for other helpful tips on how to manage communication and effective caregiving.