Nearly 10 million adults in the U.S. are providing care to their aging parents today. In fact, this phenomenon is becoming a national trend, with the number tripling within the last 15 years. While every situation is unique, there are several common stressors that emerge for adult children faced with this new responsibility for which they may not feel fully prepared.
We learn as children that our parents will serve as our primary protectors and caregivers, and we look to them for guidance and leadership. Thus, when medical or financial circumstances force parents to become dependent upon their children, most individuals experience some discomfort with the apparent role reversal that ensues. Dynamics established within the family unit may shift, and both parents and children need to adjust to the new responsibilities that come with their changed roles in the relationship.
The changing “sandwich generation” phenomenon
Years ago, the sandwich generation referred to those middle-aged folks who were juggling the responsibilities of raising their own children, building their careers, and managing the affairs of their aging parents. Today, as people live into their 80’s and 90’s, many adult children become caregivers as they, themselves, are getting ready to enter into retirement and may be saddled with their own age-related health concerns. These older caregivers may not have the same resources (e.g., energy, finances, health) as their younger adult caregiver counterparts.
Driving privileges. As their parents age, adult children are often forced to make decisions to which their parents might object or – at minimum – find very distressing. Oftentimes, medical conditions will render it unsafe for elderly to continue driving, and adult children may need to put restrictions on driving privileges or consult their parent’s medical providers to have a license officially revoked. Losing the right to drive will likely be extremely upsetting to an aging parent, as this will significantly limit their independence and feelings of autonomy.
Living arrangements. Similarly, adult children may need to make decisions related to their parent’s housing and medical supervision. Moving an aging parent into retirement community or nursing home – especially if it is against the parent’s will – is a step that, although often necessary, triggers a variety of difficult and/or conflicting emotions (e.g., guilt, sadness, hopelessness, relief).
The above are just a handful of stressors that adult children face as they walk into the role of caregiver to an elderly parent. To cope with these challenges, adult children would be wise to seek support of all kinds: instrumental support (e.g., assistance with transportation, finances, and tasks related to maintaining the parent’s health), informational support (e.g., reading materials and consulting with professionals about their parent’s needs, talking with others about expectations they should adopt related to their parent’s longevity and capabilities), and emotional support (e.g., attending support groups for adult caregivers, seeking therapy or counseling to deal with the emotions that arise during the process). Finally, it can be helpful to remember that the care an adult child provides for an aging parent can be a precious gift that allows the relationship to mature, blossom, and evolve. Increased time spent together can create opportunities for enriched connections and moments that adult children will cherish for years after their parent passes on.
By: Katie Rickel, PhD
Licensed Psychologist – Durham, NC