Daughter or mother? Caring for ageing parents

Role reversal and ageing parents

Looking after ageing parents is part of the midlife landscape. We walk a fine line between interfering too much when loved ones can still manage and failing to notice when they can’t. I am the greatest advocate of independence. I love to read stories about octogenarians doing ballet and running marathons. Age should be no barrier to living a full life. But the reality is that not everyone stays physically and mentally fit. After my mum had a series of strokes our relationship changed and I became more of a mother than a daughter.

Role reversal

My mum spent the last five years of her life in a care home. She lost the use of her left side so she needed help to do most things. I lived two hundred miles away but we talked on the phone every day, often many times a day times a day. Mum didn’t have a dementia diagnosis, unlike most of the other residents, but the stroke robbed her of some of her personality. She struggled to grasp the world outside and had little empathy. She was anxious, depressed and incredibly lonely.

It was my unconditional love that she needed. I talked her through the menu, suggested tv programmes, pushed her round the shops and organised her affairs. Ultimately she just wanted to hear my voice. In a care home there are daily frustrations, indignities, petty squabbles and genuine fears. I soothed her anxiety, soaked up her misery and listened to her woes. It was a relentless, thankless and soul-destroying task.

I’ve read about the need to avoid role reversal when caring for ageing parents. It is not appropriate to adopt a parental position, to take control and treat the older person as an adult child. I totally agree. But this assumes that parenting is all about taking charge. My ‘mam and dad’ were not those parents. They were supportive, loving and kind. They gave me the freedom to follow my own path, make mistakes and speak my mind. When I describe a reversal in our roles I simply mean that mum needed my love in the way that I used to need hers.

Many of the things that defined my relationship as ‘daughter’ no longer applied. The sanctuary of the family home was gone. My mother’s capacity for creativity, her sewing, knitting, crafting, delicious cooking, green fingers and can-do attitude were distant memories. If I asked for one of her recipes it was barely remembered. The one thing that remained constant was our mother and daughter bond and it really didn’t matter who plays which part.

Navigating changing relationships with ageing parents

Our instincts might be to protect our folks and believe that we know what is best for them. This is dangerous territory. The more you share your concerns about how they are coping the more likely your parent will hide things from you. They are justifiably nervous of what is in store and they want to hold onto their independence for as long as possible. The dent in their car, the fall, the forgetfulness – you can be assured it already worries them as much as it does you.

So how do we best support our parents without alienating them?

  1. Continue to ask your ageing parents for advice. Show them that you value their wisdom and respect their life experience.
  2. Get used to talking about finances. Perhaps make your own will and share the details with them. This may start a conversation about their own plans. When my mother-in-law died my husband spent two days looking for a funeral plan which never materialised. She had spoken of making one so we assumed it was in place. We learned through hard experience the importance of communication.
  3. Encourage your parents to apply for both financial and medical Power of Attorney whilst they’re still cognitive. It’s more difficult and stressful when they become ill or confused. It is fairly inexpensive and easy to apply on the UK goverment website with documents you can download and fill in together.
  4. Be present. Help out as much as you can in the home and garden. Get your parents used to being helped without it becoming a big deal. Check out community initiatives for trustworthy tradesmen so they have reliable numbers when they need them. Look into paying a neighbour to help with a bit of shopping and cleaning. Your parent will feel they are ‘helping’ the neighbour financially and it will feel less like social care.
  5. Don’t get impatient or frustrated. Don’t chide ageing parents for being forgetful, for moving slowly or for failing to work the tv control. Encourage rather than bully. You might feel that they are giving up – but poor hearing or eyesight, physical pain and anxiety may mean they no longer enjoy the things they used to. If they don’t seem interested in your news, your children’s achievements or your conversation it is because their world has shrunk a little. Try not to feel rejected.
  6. If your parent is diagnosed with dementia take the time to learn about the disease and become ‘a Dementia Friend’. It will help you both.

Reading these suggestions back they seem pretty inadequate in the face of the stress you will feel caring for ageing parents. I know that supporting my mum impacted on my life in ways I could never have envisaged. You will feel guilt, frustration and helplessness. There is no way to sugar coat this pill – almost every part of it will be beyond your ability to change or improve. So try to let go of the idea of making it ‘right’ and just focus on being a reassuring hand to hold.

The last and most important piece of advice is to take care of yourself and the other relationships in your life. If you are lucky enough to have siblings who share the care of your parents be supportive and value them. Be open with your partner and make time to be together. In my case my partner took the brunt when I need to vent. I am very lucky he was the understanding man I needed him to be.

Thanks for reading, Avril x

PS. If the time comes when a parent really can no longer cope on their own you might find my post on finding a care home useful.

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Caring for ageing parents

Caring for ageing parents