As you journey through life, you will inevitably take on different roles and responsibilities as you transition through each chapter. One of the most challenging roles you may encounter is that of being a child to aging parents*.
This new role forces you to confront the reality that your parents are growing older and no longer the young, virile adults that raised you. This time is not only emotional, but also tricky to navigate. As your loved ones age, they will inevitably encounter additional health concerns and require more support with routine activities.
Embracing your changing role as an adult child of elderly parents requires patience and understanding. With consistent communication and careful planning, both you and your parents can prepare to enjoy their golden years in peace.
Accepting your new role
Just when you think life couldn’t get any more complicated, it throws you another curveball. And unfortunately, as you reach the prime of your adult life in your 30s to 50s, the challenges just keep on coming. Welcome to the “sandwich” years.
The sandwich generation
The sandwich generation refers to adults with caregiving roles for both their children and parents. I remember my mother talking about this stressful stage of life when she had to step in and assist my grandparents as they both started experiencing their own health concerns. She made light of it then, joking that life never lets you get too comfortable. But now, I get it.
Taking on the new caregiving responsibilities associated with aging parents can feel overwhelming while balancing your family, personal, and work obligations. Try not to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all and take things one day at a time.
It’s emotional and scary to watch
Witnessing your parents’ physical and mental deterioration is sure to bring up a mix of emotions — from frustration to sadness to guilt and everything in between. Not only is it heartbreaking to watch your loved ones face new health issues and experience cognitive decline, but it is also difficult to process the role shift from being the one cared for to becoming the caregiver yourself.
This experience also requires us to acknowledge that we are all mortal and will not live forever, which no one wants to think about. Yet seeing it happen to a beloved family member firsthand makes the fragility of life hard to ignore.
Remember that all these new feelings are entirely normal and valid. Give yourself permission to experience the emotions, no matter what they may be.
Commit to your new role
Take time to reflect on what you want your role to be to your parents as they enter their elder years. Evaluate what level of engagement you and your family are comfortable with, and find resources to assist as needed.
By accepting this caregiver role, you acknowledge that your parents have cared for you throughout your life, and now it is your turn to support them. Even when it feels overwhelming, remember that this is your chance to show appreciation for all they have done. Keep in mind there is no right or wrong way to be involved.
Make sure you are taking care of yourself, both emotionally and physically, during this trying time. As is everything in life, this is a balancing act; you can only do what you feel is best for you, your family, and your parents.
Get “in the know”
Keeping open communication with your aging parents lays the foundation for your role in the future. By having conversations early and understanding your parents’ challenges, you are better prepared to step in and provide assistance as needed.
Get up to speed on their health status
Talk to your parents about their current health status, medications, and what doctors they see. If they have chronic health conditions or risks, check in periodically with them to ensure they are managing their health appropriately.
Ensure your loved ones have adequate healthcare coverage to support them in the coming years. There is a bounty of healthcare options available for Medicare-eligible citizens. Go to Medicare.gov to assess the plans available in your area based on their specific healthcare needs.
Help them organize their medical records in one location. You can spend quality time with your parents while also getting up to speed on their health conditions. There are many approaches to this — using physical record organizers (like this Ahh Hah! organizer), within electronic apps (such as OneRecord), or even just creating a simple file folder with the necessary info. Having all relevant medical information in an organized system will be a valuable resource and timesaver if a medical emergency occurs.
Ensure all the financial and legal documentation are in place
Discussing your parents’ financial plans and ensuring they have all the appropriate legal documents established sounds about as much fun as having the infamous “birds and the bees” talk as a kid — unpleasant and awkward for everyone involved. Of course, it’s often the most difficult conversations that need to occur the most.
Sit down with your parents to review their financial situation. Outline their financial accounts, income sources and monthly expenditures, physical assets (such as home, land, and vehicles), investments (such as stocks and bonds), and all of their outstanding debt. If you are uncomfortable with doing the number-crunching involved in retirement planning yourself, enlist the help of a financial planner.
Assess what legal documentation your parents already have to determine what they still need and what documentation needs updating. At a minimum, it is recommended that they have an advanced medical directive, a healthcare power of attorney, and a financial power of attorney. Other important documents you and your parents may want to set up are a trust or will.
It is also beneficial to have your parents document all of their online account usernames and passwords securely, and provide access to those listed on their power of attorney. Use a digital encrypted tool to store any financial and other legal account login information. I have used 1Password for over fifteen years and have always been impressed with the security features and ease of use.
Discuss long-term plans
Some people want to deny the reality of growing older and the support they may need in the future. Discuss with your parents what they have already planned to understand how you can ensure they are both comfortable and cared for.
Ask your parents about their expectations for their lifestyle going forward. Do they want to remain independent in their own home, or do they plan to move to a retirement or assisted living community at a certain point? Do they expect to move in with you or a sibling? Have these expectations been discussed with the future caregiver?
As unpleasant as these conversations are, it is crucial to start planning with your aging parents well before you must act upon them. By setting clear expectations up front and planning, you ensure they can enjoy their later years and get the required assistance.
What comes next
Even if your loved ones seem healthy and vibrant at this point, there will come a day when they will have a health scare or cannot complete daily tasks as they are used to. Maintain communication with your parents and be on the lookout for any signs they may need help.
Often these signs pop up gradually over some time. Your father starts misplacing items or forgetting conversations you’ve already had. Your mother has a little run-in between her car and a rogue shopping cart in the parking lot that she swears “came out of nowhere.” These little signs may seem minor at the moment, but over time unveil the harsh reality of old age’s impact on mental and physical decline.
Assist them from a distance
Start assisting your parents in small ways to help everyone get used to the changing dynamic of your roles. Pick up their groceries. Offer to accompany them to a doctor’s appointment. Help set them up for automated prescription delivery with their healthcare provider.
By stepping in gradually, you prevent either party from getting distraught at a drastic change. You encourage their independence while also establishing your new role as a caregiver. These small, purposeful visits also allow you to spend time with your loved ones and evaluate any challenges they encounter in a timely manner.
When they really need help
If or when there comes a time that your parents become severely ill or unable to take care of themselves, you can help get them the care they need and stay true to their wishes.
Sometimes, as much as we want to provide for their needs ourselves, this huge commitment is not always possible. Luckily, a wide range of resources and services are available to assist in elderly care.
Seek guidance from their doctor and insurance provider to understand available options. Depending on your parent’s condition, most insurance plans provide inpatient or at-home caregiving benefits.
Make the most of this time
The harsh reality that my parents were approaching their senior years hit me earlier than I was prepared for. My previously unstoppable mother was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease in her early 60s with no prior health concerns. One day she was bouncing my toddler on her hip in the kitchen, helping me plan my three-year-old’s upcoming birthday party. A short six months later, she was tied to an oxygen tank, her lungs unable to get sufficient air on their own.
It has been a long, hard road for my mother and the entire family since her initial diagnosis in 2016. At some point, I may share more about her journey and the impact it has made on all of our lives. But for now, I can gratefully state that she is stable and doing her best to enjoy her time on this earth.
What I can say for sure is that her diagnosis and journey have opened my eyes to how short and precious life truly is. Our bodies are fragile, and our health is not a guarantee. The unthinkable can strike at any moment without warning.
Life is too short to be wasted. All you can do is prepare as best you can, surround yourself with the people you love, and enjoy these precious years for the gift that they are. This understanding has led me to reevaluate what is truly important in this world and make the necessary changes to make the most of it. I am truly grateful for this knowledge, regardless of the harsh way I had to learn it.
Your most important role
The most important thing you can do for your aging parents is provide emotional support and guidance during this time of transition. Maintaining a supportive relationship will enhance their quality of life through all the scary changes, and demonstrate your love and respect for them.
No matter the stage of life you are in, your parents always deserve to feel loved and supported by their child. Hold their hands and guide them during this confusing time to make the most of these precious years together.
* Note — Any mention of parents within this article is a general reference to elderly family members (or one member) you hold a close relationship with. Everyone’s family dynamics are different, and we appreciate all role model/caregiving relationships. Get back to reading
How has your role with your aging parents changed over the years? What has been the most challenging aspect of this transition? We would love to hear your comments below.