When the tables turn and we’re parenting an elderly parent

One of the fundamentals of psychology is studying how people relate to each other. Our relationships are important in establishing

One of the fundamentals of psychology is studying how people relate to each other. Our relationships are important in establishing our identity, sense of belonging as well as our support systems throughout our life. In our younger years, we are more likely to give support and as we get older we are likely to need more support. Changing relationships are not exclusively with our spouse, changes expand to our relationships we have with our siblings, children, parents and friends. It can be difficult to accept changes in our relationships, particularly those between a parent and a child. In older years what tends to happen is that as a parent ages the role between the parent and their child is reversed. Suddenly the child takes on more responsibility about their parent and decision making, a term psychologically known as “parenting an elderly parent”.

As a psychologist, working exclusively with older people, I have observed the factors which affect relationships as we age. One of the key factors is the health of the ageing loved one. Illnesses can bring families closer, such as supporting a parent who recently had a hip replacement and requires support with adjusting to life post-surgery. Sadly, illness can also distance families and cause tension between family members. If a loved one develops cognitive changes and others may find it difficult to cope with those changes and become resentful. In most instances, the relative themselves is upset about the events, as suddenly the future they anticipated with their loved one is no longer the one they envisaged. Children may reduce contact with their parent or be in a denial about the symptoms and therefore not support their loved needs in those early and crucial moments. In my practice, I have supported a number of older people who moved to supported accommodation, with the children asking me to break the difficult news to their parent that they needed to move into care, or delaying the admission because they felt guilt about putting their loved in care.

My most frequently repeated story is the one where a daughter asked her mum to get ready for lunch, to only instead drop her off at the nursing home. The daughter thought she was doing the right thing, as she knew that her mother needed care and simply did not know how to break the news to her. The method of delivering the message was not in her mother’s favour and it affected their relationship for a long time after.

We all deal with change and the grief and loss of changing relationships differently. It is important to acknowledge that it is an individual journey and that sharing information through open communication will foster those relationships and detect when a relative may require additional support for their emotional needs. Around 45 per cent of Australians aged 16 – 85 will experience mental illness at some point in their life, while one in five Australian adults will experience a mental illness in any given year.

Depression is the most prevalent psychiatric disorder and once detected, is treatable. Depression is particularly common in those with declining health and increasing need for support. Do not be afraid of reaching out to your loved one and having an open discussion about how they are feeling and supporting them to receive the appropriate assistance in their older years. Change is inevitable but we can all learn more about how to embrace it, particularly as we get older.

Do you care for your parent?