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Coping with Role Reversal

When Lisa, age 57, first noticed that her mother seemed confused, she assumed it was typical behavior from an 80-year-old. She continued to take it in stride when her mother tried to make a phone call using the TV remote. Lisa became somewhat concerned when her mother started sautéing onions in a pan and then walked outside to get the mail, forgetting the stove was on. When her mother began seeing her long-dead mother in bed with her, Lisa realized there was more to the picture than normal aging. She knew her mother required full-time care.

Lisa is not a rarity. More families in the coming decades will be faced with what is referred to as being the “sandwich generation,” meaning that adults will provide care for both their parents and their grandparents, says Dr. Lisa Hollis-Sawyer, Gerontology Program Coordinator at Northeastern Illinois University.

How does it feel being a caregiver for your parent?

“Families rarely anticipate that a parent will need care,” says Dr. Hollis-Sawyer. This lack of planning can result in a breakdown of communication, leading to stress and frustration among family members. She recommends discussing a “care plan” with your parents before it becomes necessary.

Dr. Hollis-Sawyer researched daughters who provided care for their mothers. She found their previous relationship influenced how the daughter felt about their role as a caregiver. If the daughter had a positive relationship with their mother, often they felt happy to be a caregiver since they thought they were reciprocating care their mother provided for them as a child. On the other hand, if the daughter had a negative relationship with their mother when growing up, then they felt resentful about their caregiver role.

Dr. Hollis-Sawyer found that the care recipient felt guilty or felt like they were a burden on their child, regardless of their previous relationship. Even though it is no fault of their own that they required care, the care recipient felt as if they failed at being a parent.

How can you cope with caring for your parent?

Your role as a caregiver can be less stressful if you have open communication with other family members and with the care recipient. Dr. Hollis-Sawyer stresses the importance of asking for help when needed and expressing your feelings about the situation. She also suggests talking to the care recipient about their feelings or what they need assistance doing and ways they can be independent. “It is important not to assume the care recipient is unable to do anything,” she says. Allowing the care recipient to complete everyday tasks within their capability may help them to feel independent. The caregiver and recipient should figure out together what the care recipient is capable of achieving.

Self-care is an important aspect when you are caring for others. Dr. Hollis-Sawyer recommends the key to self-care is understanding yourself by writing in a journal or diary on a daily basis. This will help you to recognize when you need a break or when to ask for help to prevent burnout.

It is also important to find social support for both the caregiver and recipient. There are many different forms of social supports such as counseling, community resources, senior centres, friends, or other family members. “These social supports can help the pair identify both frustrations and triumphs, which can optimize coping strategies,” says Dr. Hollis-Sawyer.

Staying positive about your new role as caregiver

Through her research, Dr. Hollis-Sawyer witnessed many positive effects of daughters caring for their mothers. “Daughters learned about their own aging process, which helped them understand how to prepare for it,” she says. She also noticed that the grandchildren benefited from seeing a role model of good care experience.

The caregiver and recipient often develop a stronger bond that was not there prior to their new roles. “There is much to be gained through increased self-awareness and learning for all involved,” says Dr. Hollis-Sawyer.

Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Parents Magazine, AARP, Healthline, Your Teen Magazine, and many other publications. Find her on Twitter @CherylMaguire05. 










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