Changing roles is an inescapable byproduct of time. From your baby’s first step, to his first day at school — from the day she gets her driver’s license until her college dorm is in your rear view mirror — your role is changing. And your relationship evolves from all-knowing protector and teacher to “out to lunch” parent of a teen, to bankroller with a good idea once in a while, surprising your nearly grown college freshman.
Then, for several decades, the parent-child relationship becomes adult-adult. This period can be very pleasant. Like good friends, you help each other in a pinch, but live your own lives and make your own decisions.
Role reversal begins when the child assumes control of some aspect of a parent’s life. It may begin at the parent’s request and be relatively minor, such as taking care of Dad’s car maintenance, or driving Mom to medical appointments, doing income taxes or balancing checkbooks. This control shift is limited and non-intrusive. Inconvenience to the child is minimal and the parent is grateful.
But one day, something reveals a parent’s vulnerability. Maybe it sneaks up like retirement or a significant birthday. Or it may strike suddenly like a broken hip, or a stroke. One day you sense a little memory failure. And then you know: your parents won’t live forever.
Vulnerability sweeps in a deeper, quicker change. Things get complicated. Children focus on the parent’s safety. Parents cling desperately to their independence and freedom. Neither side wants to change their lifestyle. Even in the most loving families, emotions can include fear, resentment, frustration, anxiety, and anger.
I was living in Washington, DC with a husband and a very responsible full-time job when my moment of change struck like a bolt. A cousin called from Lakeland, Florida where my parents were living. Dad had fallen carrying a load of boards and was in a hospital emergency room. Mom was with my cousin. She said, “Carolyn, you’re going to have to come down here. Audrey [Mom] can’t remember what happened or why your Dad isn’t with her.”
I flew down immediately and stayed until Dad was released. It took some persuading but a few months later they moved in with my husband me.
Burden or Blessing?
Sharing a home will change the lives of everyone involved, including any grandchildren still at home. If Dad is cooperative and pleasant, his presence can bring joy. But even if he lives nearby with help, a family’s life will change. Adult children will want to carve out time for regular visits and outings. They may need to help with a parent’s expenses. The kids must pay attention to parents’ doctor visits and health changes. One child may be required to take on an increasing share of the parent’s care.
When we first decided to invite my parents to live with us, I told friends. My American friends would say things like, “Oh, that’s so nice of you! I don’t know if I could do it!” But Latino friends invariably said, “You’re so lucky! I wish I could have my parents with me!” They helped me see that intergenerational living could be a shared blessing.
Overall, it was. Dad was good-natured and mentally clear until he died at 93. He took responsibility for Mom in their in-law apartment in our house until she needed more attention than he could provide. Together we found a memory care facility where we visited often and she died at 95.
Do’s and Don’ts for Parents and Kids
Kids: Do respect your parent’s autonomy. Respect their dignity. They are not your children, they are adults. Unless dementia is present, their decision on their own life issues should be final. For instance, if a parent wants to stay in her own home, do everything you can to make that happen as safely as possible, even if you would prefer another solution.
Don’t take more control than absolutely necessary. If you discover Dad has made a $4,000 mistake in his bank account, show it to him and ask if he would like you to help with bill-paying and bank balancing. Don’t seize his checkbooks and mail and do it without his permission unless you have no choice.
Parents: Do take precautions to enhance your own safety, whether that means taking taxis instead of driving, hiring help at home, or considering your children’s suggestions about downsizing. Do ask them for help and advice when needed.
Don’t keep secrets from your children about your health, finances, or documents such as a will and powers of attorney.
All: Be kind. You’ll be glad you were.