Your once sharp-minded mother has begun to make mistakes when paying her bills…your once strong-as-a-bull father has started to struggle with bags of groceries. Of course, your heart aches to see your aging parents in decline, and you want to be supportive. But let’s be frank—sometimes it is really, really hard not to be irritable and impatient or even to explode in anger. Doing so, however, only makes everyone feel worse. To be patient and compassionate…
Remind yourself that role reversal is inevitable. Even though you’ve been an adult for decades, it is hard to adjust emotionally to the fact that your parents no longer take care of you and instead you must take care of them. It’s normal to feel disappointed and distressed about this transition. But realize that your parents, like you, also are making difficult adjustments necessitated by their loss of abilities and independence. As their world shrinks and their dependence on you grows, they become increasingly embarrassed about their decline, desperate for attention and anxious about not being in control of their lives. Remember how when your children were small, fear and frustration made them act clingy or throw tantrums? For the same reasons, your aging parents’ emotional tumult may lead them to complain that you don’t love them (for example, if they think that you don’t call often enough) or to lash out at you even when you’re being helpful (accusing you of being critical or controlling when you insist on taking over their bill-paying). Understanding these facts can help you accept the new reality.
Acknowledge your fears for your own future. When you lose your temper with your parents, don’t berate yourself for being a bad daughter. True, you probably would find it easier to be patient with an elderly stranger than with your own parents. But this doesn’t stem from lack of love—it happens because your parents’ failings hit closer to home, triggering fears of your own inevitable deterioration. Whenever irritation with Mom or Dad mounts, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “I’m upset because I’m worried about getting old myself, but that is the future, not the present.” This reminder makes it easier to deal patiently with your parents in the here and now.
Be respectful. Pointing out your parents’ failures only adds to their distress, so make a conscious effort to be as positive as possible. Acknowledge what they do well, voicing your approval (“I’m impressed that you always keep the house so clean”) and appreciation (“Thank you for remembering your granddaughter’s birthday”). This helps them feel empowered and competent. When challenges arise, unless there truly is a time crunch, express acceptance (“There’s no rush, you can take your time figuring out what you’d like for dinner”)… and offer encouragement (“Let’s try again, I think we can find that book you’re looking for”).
Vent to a third party, not to your parents. When your emotions threaten to overwhelm you, find an understanding friend or another family member to whom you can voice your complaints…or join a support group for children of aging parents. Do not express your anger directly to your parents—this only makes them feel defensive or insecure and causes them to become argumentative or to withdraw into a shell. What if you do lose your cool? Apologize at once and be reassuring of your love, saying, “I am so sorry that I got upset. Changes are tough for all of us, but I want you to know that I love you now as much as ever—and I always will.”
Judy Kuriansky, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist on the adjunct faculty of Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City. She is the author of several books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to a Healthy Relationship (Alpha), and is a columnist and advisory board member for HealthyWoman from Bottom Line. www.DrJudy.com