Our Changing Relationship With Aging Parents

Cultivating an ongoing attitude of respect for your parents’ rights and wishes and your own needs and boundaries can strengthen your relationship during a time of severe testing.

The role reversal that often occurs between aging parents and adult children is awkward at best and sometimes painfully traumatic. Whether you’ve been thrust into the role of primary decision-maker through a gradual process of cognitive or physical deterioration or because of a sudden illness, watching your elderly loved ones lose their independence is tough. But one core value turned into a deliberate habit during the transition can help you move through the situation with more grace and less stress.


Cultivating an ongoing attitude of respect for your parents’ rights and wishes and your own needs and boundaries can strengthen your relationship during a time of severe testing. When it’s undeniable that your aging parents can no longer care for themselves and you need to step up and play a larger role in their lives, let the heart-to-heart conversations begin.

To the extent that your loved one’s condition allows, help her retain her dignity and autonomy in the decision-making process. Put yourself in your mother’s shoes and try to empathize with her feelings. Has she always been strong-willed and independent, never asking for anything? Perhaps you’ve never shared an especially warm and intimate relationship. If Mum has always taken care of everyone, does she suddenly feel as if she no longer has a role or identity?

Approach your parents honestly about your concerns and share your observations. Offer help without seizing control. Open the door to a series of candid discussions that may need to evolve over time as your parents’ conditions change. Be patient, and give them time to consider their options.

Discussing difficult decisions

Reviewing your parents’ financial situation is another sensitive area requiring a respectful approach. Should you establish Power of Attorney for your parents? This gives you access to bank accounts and allows you to execute the sale of financial assets such as real estate and automobiles.

Explain to your parents that designating you attorney-in-fact protects them if they are unable to manage their own financial affairs and prevents the court from appointing a stranger.

Recognize and respect your own limits

It is very common for adult children thrust into the role of caring for aging parents to struggle with boundaries. “An illness or disability can debilitate more than one life if allowed to, and caregivers need to separate themselves from the loved one’s condition,” AARP advises. You have only so much time, endurance, and emotional energy to expend, and taking on responsibility for another’s life can be physically and emotionally exhausting.

If your parent is suffering from dementia or other conditions that exacerbate emotional neediness, you may be at the receiving end of anger, confusion, and resentment. It’s important to define clear boundaries that protect you from depletion and a loss of health.

The Caregiver Bill of Rights grants you full permission to prioritize self-care, ask for help, and acknowledge your own anger and depression in your new role. You also have the right to:

Protect your individuality and your right to make a life for yourself that will sustain you when your aging parent no longer needs your help.
Reject any attempts by your loved one to manipulate you through guilt and/or depression.
Stand your ground and say “no” when necessary for your own survival.
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