The Tables Have Turned...

Children think of their parents as self-sufficient, not really having needs. The teenagers also get accustomed to living off of their parents. The parents after all provide everything except perhaps a little spending money that the teen earns.

The young adult is also accustomed to being on the receiving end with his or her parents. They have perhaps provided the basic financial support for college, getting launched into a new career, setting up a business, buying the first car, or assisting in the down payment on that first house.

In addition, they have been heavily involved in the family getting launched. They were there to pick up the tab for the wedding bills, they may have helped with furnishing the home, or some of the additional medical bills as the first child came along. Of course, as proud grandparents there were always those little additional assists of new clothes for the baby, a few extra bucks for a night out, or a special vacation.

Your parents probably also provided insight, wisdom, encouragement, helped you over some tough spots in life, or with important decisions.

For most of your life, that is, into midlife, your parents having been carrying out the role of provider and or supporter, but now strangely the tables are turning the roles are reversing. Your parents are now in latelife and seem to be getting smaller, less able to help, and needing your help.

Managing New Roles

The experience of parenting your parents will expose you to a variety of feelings often times in conflict with each other. On the one hand it's fun to realize that you can do something for people who have contributed so much to your life. On the other hand, they may view your help as a put-down--almost as if you are reinforcing in their minds the fact that they are getting old. You must, however, press on and learn how to manage these new roles.

Sometimes parents feel that you owe them the care that they now need, or they may feel that you are too incompetent to give them the care and advice that they need.

1. Both are inexperienced. In the past, they have been the wise ones who advised you, now you are being required to look after them and advise them. They have cared for you, now you take on the role of caretaker. It's difficult to reverse these roles. It won't happen overnight. The reality is that both of you are inexperienced in these new roles that you must take. Your parents are not accustomed to receiving from you and you are not accustomed to parenting them.

2. Old grudges may need to be resolved.
Often there is a love/hate relationship. Yes you love your parents, but yes you remember some of the things that they did that were definitely wrong. Some of those unresolved grudges that you thought were successfully buried may now come bubbling to the surface.

Sometimes parents feel that you owe them the care that they now need, or they may feel that you are too incompetent to give them the care and advice that they need.

All of these bad feelings need to be talked about directly "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). Each of you may need to confess bad feelings and then forgive the other. Remember, even if the other party won't acknowledge their fault, it is still important for you to acknowledge your part and clear away that much of the problem.

Losses--Yours And Theirs

Loss is a key concept to understanding some of the feelings that both you and your latelife parents are experiencing during this time as you parent your parents.

1. Parents'losses. The obvious losses are physical. You watch them age before your eyes with their vision, hearing, and mobility being effected. New illnesses may appear such as diabetes, heart ailments, or osteoporosis.

There are other very visible losses that your parents are experiencing. Retirement caused a cutback in financial income and if your mother is a widow she is among the people in our country who experience the highest poverty rate.

When your father and mother retired they not only lost income, but also lost prestige and identity. They no longer were viewed by society as "productive members of society." Society views retired people in a patronizing way, sometimes thinking of them as inept--or tragically as a drag on society consuming food and space.

In addition to these losses, your parents social network is shrinking as old friends die off and they have fewer contacts with new people. On top of that, the rapid culture change in our country may make their living experience very frustrating. A new cell phone or computer may appear simple to you, but it may be an unnecessary hassle for your parents, and as a result, they won't bother to use it.

They need to see that they have dignity and independence. That they still have worth--that they are useful and that they should have significant relationships with other people.

2. Your losses. Yes, you are experiencing losses. You are losing your caretakers. They've always been there as backups to you, but are shrinking physically in size and in their capacity to help you.

You may also suddenly realize that you are next. As you see the deterioration of your parents, and eventually experience their death, you become acutely aware that death will also be a reality for you.

Parenting your parents also causes you to lose some of your freedom. In addition, stress produced by caring for your parents may also effect your personal health, or your marriage and family.

Everyone Has Needs

If you are involved in parenting your latelife parents you probably are torn between taking care of them and keeping up with the rest of your life. It is important to meet their needs and your needs. Understanding each person's needs and attempting to meet those needs will be a positive way to parent your parents.

A. Your parents' needs. Aging parents may have abilities that vary greatly--some will be totally self sufficient, while others may need a great deal of help. Their needs may come under several categories:

1. Physical and financial needs. They may be totally independent, need help with a budget, or even writing checks for bills.

2. Emotional. They need to see that they have dignity and independence. That they still have worth--that they are useful and that they should have significant relationships with other people.

3. Business needs. There may be wills to update, or business or properties to be cared for.

4. Spiritual concerns. There will be new questions about death and heaven, and the meaning of life. Questions about what have I accomplished with my life? How do I make a spiritual contribution at this age?

If you understand some of your parents' legitimate needs then you can plan specific strategies to meet those needs so that they continue to feel contented and significant.

Communication is strategic. Ask them what they think of their present situation. Ask them about their future plans or their alternate plans if their circumstances change. What happens when one of them dies, or if their health should fail sharply.

Your mate's companionship will be very important as you face some of the hard tasks in parenting you parents.

Talk to your parents' friends and get their perspective on life, and on your parents. It will also be helpful to talk to your friends who have parents in latelife; find out how are they parenting their parents? Look on the internet for helpful sites or books about this transition time.

B. Your needs. You probably are relatively healthy and energetic. You're busy with career and your immediate family activities. You probably are involved in launching your own children so that you may be caught between the needs of two generations--your children on one hand, and your parents on the other. Sometimes in the generational squeeze your own personal needs, and your marital needs, may be squeezed out.

1. Take time to work on your marriage relationship. Your mate's companionship will be very important as you face some of the hard tasks in parenting you parents. (See the book
Traits of a Lasting Marriage by Jim and Sally Conway)

2. Keep a strong personal relationship with the Lord. Take time daily to read the Scripture and pray. It will give you an overall perspective on life, yourself, and your parents.

3. Guard your physical and emotional health. It is necessary for you to do things that will rebuild and nourish you. Remember that you are probably under heavy stress from many different directions. Therefore, use stress management procedures. (See our article
Managing Stress.)

4. Do not parent your parents out of guilt. It is appropriate for you to feel an obligation. The Bible says directly that we are to honor our parents, but honor is a positive word of service and admiration where as guilt springs from obligation and duty done in a grudging way. It may be easy for you to fall back into the child role and find yourself "obeying" your parents. Parenting your parents requires leadership and honor, not obedience.

5. Serve your parents out of love. Try not to relate from past experiences. Balance loves tender sensitivity with love's objectivity. Be compassionate while still being rational and realistic.

6. Remember you also are aging. "There is a story of a midlife father who sent his older adolescent son to the attic to get the old horse blanket. He explained to his son that grandpa was getting very old and cantankerous, so they were going to send him away. The heavy horse blanket was to be used to keep him warm as he rode away in the buggy.

A few minutes later, the son returned with half of the blanket and handed it to his father. The midlife father in startled amazement asked, 'What happened to the blanket?' The adolescent son replied, 'I'm saving the other half for you'" (pg. 262,
Men in Midlife Crisis by Jim Conway)

Parenting your parents can be your finest hour of expressing honor and love to your parents. By utilizing the gifts, abilities, and insights that God has given you, ask God to help you parent your parents in a Godly way.


Conway / Farrel Articles ~ Reprint by permission only,  ©2011

Midlife Dimensions

The Conways and Farrels are international speakers and popular authors.

Midlife Dimensions is a ministry founded by the Conways and continued by the Farrels.