There is never a good age, it seems, to have to parent your parent. It doesn’t matter if you are 70 and your parents are 90, or if you are 30 and your parents are 50. The role reversal is painful, sometimes awkward, and opens the door to so many intimate conversations and situations that everyone probably would’ve been more than happy to put off for another twenty years.
When I speak to families that are experiencing such a reversal, there is always the tension between doing what needs to be done, and maintaining the dignity, privacy, and autonomy of their parent. They often say, who am I to tell them how to spend their money? Or even more heartbreaking, adult children mourn having to remind their parents of who they are, or to use the bathroom or brush their teeth. Everything feels out of order, out of place and uncomfortable.
The situation I just described happens under the best of circumstances; when families feel love for each other and get along well. When finances are plentiful and options are open and abundant because there is money available to be spent without sacrificing either the other parent or possible transfer of generational wealth. Yes, this is absolutely a consideration for all families. It can cost a year’s salary to care for a loved one at home or in a facility, and that is if you are making six figures. It is a fact that our society must confront and quickly. We are not prepared for the silver tsunami that is coming as the Boomers retire and age. Whether or not you made money and were able to save money, or your children have done the same, should not be a factor of how you age and ultimately spend the rest of your years. In America, we have not overcome this yet, and it is a huge factor affecting millions of families.
When there is conflict between parents and children, neglect or abuse, the role reversal becomes a source of anger and resentment. People have struggled with sentiments like, they didn’t take care of me, why should I take care of them? I have had adult children tell me that their parent was cruel, and seeing them declining and vulnerable doesn’t move them, and it makes them feel like they are a monster. Often, adult children who have been able to overcome abusive or neglectful childhoods to go on and become warm and attentive parents themselves don’t understand how they can be so loving towards their children and so cold towards their parents. It is a situation wrought with sadness. It is a time when just as much attention needs to be paid to the adult children, as to the aging parent. There is a lot of emotional and spiritual health on the line, and it must be attended to.
Almost every family I have pastored through such a time, those feelings have been overcome, and doing what is right is chosen over what might feel deserved. It is always a moment that warrants recognition for the children making this choice. I have also found that once the parent passes, that decision is not regretted.
No matter the situation, good or bad, rich or poor, the hope is always the same: parents receive compassionate and complete care in a clean and safe environment. The hope is also that the caregivers do not have to neglect their own needs, either financial or personal. Many are caring for young children, some are attempting to pay for college at the same time they are paying for private duty care. The task of providing dignified, high level care is, crudely put, like a game of whack-a-mole; just when you solve one problem, another pops up.
I pray that somehow we will find a solution that makes this role reversal less stressful and painful for all families. I can say that as a rabbi who aims to be a helper, as well as a daughter that loves her parents deeply and feels they deserve the best of everything, I want to help find that solution. As adult children, we can happily take over hosting holidays from our parents. We can use their china and stemware. But when it comes to taking over their care, however, we are far from having what we need to be in charge.