Seniors | Frustration normal when caregiving roles reverse

Q: I often feel frustrated dealing with my aging parents. I make helpful suggestions, but they don’t want to listen. Do you have any advice? D.S., Berkeley

A: Many of us probably remember when we were in our teens and our parents would offer us suggestions. Sometimes we listened, and often we wanted to do it our own way.

As our parents age, these roles somehow get reversed, as we are now convinced that we know what is best for them. And it can be quite vexing when our parents are not interested in listening or following through on our suggestions. Frustrations can stem from trying to intervene with issues related to health and safety, such as driving, eating and needing help at home. I recently received a call on our information and referral line from a son who was upset because his mom refused to have someone help her in the house after she had fallen twice in one week. Finances were not an issue, but his mom would dismiss his concerns whenever he tried to talk about them.

Rob Tufel

Sometimes the source of frustration can be the exact opposite — an aging parent who has become overly dependent and expects a level of care that is difficult to provide. Many times, this type of behavior is related to increasing isolation or the loss of a partner, spouse or close friends. We recently consulted with a woman after her father died; her mother was now calling her several times a day for the smallest things. Our client felt that short of moving in with her mother, she could never do enough to satisfy her.

While the frustrations may be related to the common tasks of your new role as caregiver, they are also well rooted in your long-term relationship with your parents, both the positive and negative aspects.

As your parents grow older, these dynamics may become more intense due to changes related to aging — physical limitations, health or memory loss. And as your own role shifts from being their child to also being their caregiver, this further complicates the dynamics. It can often be equally discouraging for your parents to have their own children be the ones who seem to be threatening to take away their autonomy.

Many of us who work with seniors have observed that dealing with the demands of aging and caregiving is like putting a relationship under a magnifying glass. The positive aspects pop out, but so do the negative ones, and there is often unfinished business. If the negative aspects are overwhelming, they can set a problematic direction moving forward.

If you reach an impasse with your parents and want to delve into those deeper areas of your relationship, consider counseling. While there are therapists (social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists) working in private practice and nonprofits, be sure to find one who has specific experience working with adult children and their aging parents.

A good way to prepare for therapy is to think specifically about what is causing your feelings. Do you get most upset when trying to get your parents to agree to some type of outside assistance, or is your frustration tied up with your feelings about not being able to do enough, or with concern for their safety? Therapy can be a place to vent, but it should also help you come to terms with your new role as a caregiver.

One helpful book that focuses on how these parent/child relationships play out is “Coping with Your Difficult Older Parent” by Grace Lebow and Barbara Kane. It summarizes issues ranging from the overly dependent parent to the resistant parent to the controlling parent, as well as specific interventions.

Geriatric care managers are another good resource for adult children, providing shorter-term, practically focused consults that can help you explore your complicated feelings around caring for your parents. If your parents are open to it, care managers also can mediate between you and your parents. There are also caregiver organizations such as the Family Caregiver Alliance, which has a wide range of support groups at which caregivers share their experiences and learn about resources and strategies from each other. Seeking information about specific physical and mental changes related to aging also can help you in your caregiver role when you start to see those changes in your own parents.

But the hard reality is that at its core, caregiving for an aging parent can be immensely demanding. It is often a role imposed on us and one we undertake with little training or preparation. Ultimately, there may be times when we are powerless to impact our parents’ behavior and we have to step away. At those times, the best we can do is to just be with our parents.

Some of the most satisfying times I had with my father toward the end of his life were when we would just sit together and read the newspaper. I wasn’t bothering him about not eating enough or getting out of his room, and he wasn’t getting overwhelmed by my constant nagging. (Or as he would put it, “Stop hocking mier en chinik!)

As difficult as this time is, you will never regret that you provided invaluable support to your parents during the years when they needed you most. Do your best to keep this knowledge front and center during those particularly challenging moments.

Rob Tufel, MSW, MPH, is director of Adult Services at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of the East Bay. His columns appear regularly in j’s Seniors supplements. Have any questions about your aging parents? Email rtufel@jfcs-eastbay.org or call (510) 558-7800, ext. 352.