21st Century Aging

Living longer and better.

When the Child Becomes the Parent

Sorting out the confusion of being a parent and a caregiver

If you are one of the millions of people taking care of or worried about an aging parent, you know that caretaking concerns do not occur in a vacuum. Because people are having children at an older age, caring for a parent in the 21st Century frequently occurs while raising one’s own children.

Dubbed the Sandwich Generation, this is just the position that many parents face. While the stresses of taking care of kids and parents are multiple, dealing with a parent who can seem like a child has enduring psychological consequences.

The dependency of one’s own children has a natural component. Even when parents feel like they want to tear their hair out when their 6-month old is screaming because she is hungry and needs her diaper changed, most people understand that this is part of parenting. Kids are dependent and helpless and they need us. As a parent, the role is clear.

However, when our parents engage in behavior that is similar to a child, it can feel like the world is turning upside down. When a demented parent is incontinent or needs to be reminded to eat, it confuses us regarding who is the grown-up. The person who raised and taught us much of what we know now needs someone in a parental role.

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Seeing our parents become dependent is a painful, yet common reality for those of us aging in this time. Yet, if you are raising children and taking care of an older parent, you have to manage the ways you divide your attention. Many people who are helping out with an aging parent can get caught up in an addictive cycle of caregiving. When our parents become ill we need to figure out how to help in a way that does not neglect our current families. Moreover, we need to figure out how to take care of ourselves.

For all of us, emotionally separating from our parents is difficult. Setting boundaries with family members is hard, even in the best of circumstances. When we separate from parents and start our own families, there is often a feeling of loss. When we allow ourselves to develop meaningful relationships away from our parents we have to give things up from our past, and this involves both sadness and grief. Among what we need to let go of is the security of parental relationships or ideas about what we may have wanted (but did not get) from our parents.

When a parent becomes ill everything from our own childhoods, which we thought we had put to rest, can come back to haunt us. This is especially true when taking care of children at home. In the midst of our own vibrant lives we get reminded of the limits of our own upbringing. If we did not have an ideal (or good enough childhood) anger and resentment can take the stage. When this is the case, it is pretty tough to take care of everyone who may need us.

Yet, some people manage difficult feelings regarding the pressures of caregiving by throwing themselves into a caregiving role. We all know people who respond to stress in this way. Such people feel angry with all of the pressure by becoming overly identified as a caregiver. They don’t sleep much, don’t eat well, and try to present to the world as if everything is all right.

Taking care of an aging parent can throw us into multiple versions of ourselves. We can feel like an infant, child, and parent all at the same time. Although parenting requires people to deal with how dependent they were as kids, taking care of an adult parent puts this dilemma in the forefront. It can seem like there is no room for us to feel like a grown up and a kid, but this is exactly what is required of us. When parents are ill and elderly, we have to manage a number of disjointed and seemingly contradictory feelings and identities.

 

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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