Changing Roles With Your Difficult Aging Parent

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son caring for fatherMuch is written about “parenting your parent”. The notion that we have to tell aging parents what to do, and take care of them, and be in charge of their lives is very uncomfortable for most people. Mom or Dad has always been in charge. He or she was always a difficult person to deal with when we were kids. We don’t think of ourselves as able to switch roles with them. Why is this so hard to do?

We develop patterns in our relationships with our aging parents over time. We are born into a family in which we are totally dependent. We may be blessed with kind and loving parents, or be unlucky, and have an elderly aging parent who is absent, less than loving, or worse. Our relationships with our aging parents are shaped by the way they behave as parents, and by our responses and reactions to the way they behave toward us. Patterns of conflict can go back as far as we remember.


Difficult aging parents can be an enormous burden for their adult children when it comes time for those difficult parents to need help. The stubborn, critical, resistant, or angry person is hard to deal with under any circumstances. The difficulty is multiplied when the adult child has this kind of aging parent, and must now take on chores and responsibilities he or she never wanted in the first place, but feels somewhat forced to undertake. Perhaps there is no one else to do it. Perhaps there is no money to hire the help that would lessen the burden. Maybe the adult child feels guilty if he or she doesn’t help the aging parent, who is now growing more helpless and dependent.

There is no doubt that managing care and help for an aging parent takes patience. The chores seem endless. The aging parent may have trouble hearing, seeing, walking, eating, making up her mind, or doing even simple things. The work can be quite hard. The aging parent can make it harder by difficult behavior. If the adult child feels an old anger, resentment, or fear toward this now dependent elder, it complicates the job of caretaking. Under the worst circumstances, it can lead to physical or emotional abuse of the elder. So, it’s important to work at being aware of one’s feelings, and to consciously put them aside, to get the job of caretaking done.

It’s not necessary to fix, or cure all the old resentments one may have toward a difficult parent, just to offer the necessary care an adult child must give. It is, however, necessary to recognize and understand those feelings to prevent one’s self from boiling over or making things worse. It takes self-discipline to hear complaining without reacting to it. The art of choosing not to respond can be an invaluable tool in working with a difficult elder.

Difficult parents don’t stop being difficult because they age. Aging may bring out some of the worst qualities in certain people who were difficult to begin with. Such things as complaining, criticizing, resisting help, making unkind remarks, and the like can be habits. Those who have those habits may indulge in their unpleasant behavior even more as they slowly lose certain abilities they once had, and feel upset that they have to rely on anyone else. For their long-suffering adult children, there is a choice: understand that this behavior is a pattern in your parent that isn’t going to go away. You may decide to accept it, and get the job of caretaking done with less internal stress, or resent it, and lash out, or act out, and make things worse.

What can you do if you’re stressed out by your difficult aging parent? The patterns remain in place, even when the aging parent grows older and is less able to care for himself. If you feared your father as a young child, you may still feel that fear as an adult. If your mother drove your crazy with criticizing you, you may still react to her as you did when you were young, even if she’s eighty, and you’re fifty. The patterns can interfere with our ability to carry on with the care of an aging parent, unless we are aware of them, and work at managing them.


Getting support from other family members, friends, clergy, a caregiver support group, or a counselor can be a great help for the caregiver adult child burdened by a difficult and needy aging parent. Talk about it outside your parent’s presence. Take time to “decompress” by doing things you enjoy. Consider it absolutely necessary to have some time for yourself every day. If you have no trusted person in whom you can confide, consider a professional counselor. A compassionate listener can do much to lessen the burden, and reassure you that it’s ok to feel upset by what you’re going through. Reach out to others. It can make all the difference in your ability to manage one of the toughest jobs you can have.

©2008 Carolyn L. Rosenblatt, R. N., Attorney at Law

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