Caring for a Parent When Your Relationship Has Been Strained

Whether you assume a hands-on or a backseat role, caregiving may offer an opportunity for healing.

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- Posted on Oct 16, 2020

An aging mother in wheelchair converses with her caregiver son.

Lauri Scharf, LSW, MSHS, is a Care Consultant & Master Trainer at Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

It’s no secret that parent-child relationships can be fraught with tension, even after the child becomes an adult. Difficulties can often be attributed to any number of tough challenges on the part of the parent, from mental health and addiction issues to trying job situations and financial pressures. Emotional, psychological or physical abuse may have occurred during the child’s formative years.

Contrary to the ideal nurturing and supportive family scenario, some children grow up in environments that require them to shoulder adult responsibilities. For adults who feel they have undergone such a role reversal in childhood, separating from a parent who wasn’t there for them can come as a relief. Yet they may still feel a bond with the parent, due to feelings of loyalty, responsibility or even empathy.

How might caregiving for an aging parent play out when this is the underlying dynamic? If you have such a relationship with a parent, you may not be sure whether you want to assume the role of caregiver. If you do decide to do so, how do you navigate the potentially rocky landscape? Is it possible there may be hidden opportunities to work through feelings, or even to heal some feelings and forge a more positive future?

“How do I decide whether to be a caregiver for a parent who wasn’t there for me?”

Deciding whether to take on your parent’s care, even if he or she is in declining health and in need of support, requires serious consideration. If you have not had the chance to address your personal feelings, this may be the time to seek out therapy for the sake of your health. A  therapist can offer guidance on how to channel your feelings and thoughts into a positive way of life for yourself. With that help, you may be able to determine how caregiving might play out for you. Taking on a caregiving role may also offer you the opportunity to reconcile with your parent. Resolving past issues is rarely a simple undertaking, but offering a supportive role can sometimes help you to start healing.

On the other hand, if your parent did not already respect your relationship, he or she may not be open to doing so at this point. The good news is that there are many ways to be an effective caregiver. You do not have to employ a hands-on approach. You can provide safety and care for your parent in a variety of other ways that do not require your physical proximity. You might choose to select another family member or trusted friend who is able and willing to take the lead. What matters is that good care and wise decision-making are being provided, not who is assuming the leading role.

Geriatric case managers or other qualified professionals are other helpful options. Geriatric case managers work to coordinate the services and care that can allow you and other family members to take a backseat in roles you may not be comfortable with. They can work with you to develop long-range plans, address immediate concerns, and guide difficult conversations that you or your parent may have been avoiding.   

“What if my parent won’t allow me to assist?”

Your parent may have reasons for resisting help either from family members or formally hired professionals. It is important to honor their ability and right to make personal decisions, even if you do not agree with them, as maintaining independence and the ability to make personal decisions is very important at any age.

However, there may come a time that in the interest of their personal safety, additional measures need to be put into place. You may need to consult Adult Protective Services to provide a stricter appraisal of the situation. Their role, while founded in federal and state law, is to promote the safety and well-being of vulnerable adults. Their presence allows for a more direct intervention and connection to social services that may have been previously declined. The most restrictive option is having a legal guardian appointed.  

“In what ways can I provide effective care for my parent?”

Keep in mind that your parent may have grown up in a similarly troubled environment and, thus, found it difficult to act as your protector and guide. Remember that a history of strained relationships does not warrant continuing the cycle. Although you don’t get a do-over, you do have the opportunity to create a new future for your relationship. As a caregiver for your parent, the most important thing is to act in his or her best interests. The following tips can help to empower you as the caregiver:  

  • Get information on your parent’s diagnosis, symptoms and treatment options
  • Look into resources and community services that can support your parent and you as the caregiver
  • Bring healthcare professionals and other relevant individuals with expertise into the equation
  • Build a care team to support you and your parent in the caregiving journey
  • Think about how your parent might trigger you and how to navigate these triggers
  • Don’t be afraid to take a step back if necessary

WeCare…Because you Do, a program offered by Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, can offer you trained Care Consultants who can walk with you on this journey. Through the mutually developed Action Plans, the needs of your parent as well as your needs as a caregiver are identified. The different options can help you be successful while meeting the needs of your parent.

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