Coping with Role Reversal: More Adults Caring for Aging Parents

Whitney Von Lake Hopler

Between childhood and our elder years, we can buy into the illusion that we’re somehow self-sufficient. Those who spend their time caring for aging parents, however, know that no one can journey through life without the help of others.

Adult children see the once-strong hands of a parent – the same hands that cradled them as babies – now shake with age. As they hold those hands to help their mom or dad walk, they experience the reality of independence ebbing away, as it eventually will for them, too.

Such moments can draw both caregivers and their elderly parents closer to God and each other.

“Taking care of elderly parents and other elderly relatives and friends is the right thing to do, no matter what,” said Jim Vickery, who helped care for his father-in-law for several years, first at home and then in a nursing home.

Becky Bishop, who cared for her seriously ill mother-in-law until she died and then shared her home with her father, said caregiving can and should be a positive experience. “I would like to see our society see taking care of each other as just part of the natural way of living because we love each other,” she said. “When we were babies and children, our parents took care of us. Taking care of them later is just part of the way we can give back to them.”

As valuable as the caregiving experience can be, however, it is full of challenges. Feelings of guilt, fear, and frustration sometimes plague caregivers, who wonder how they can possibly do all that needs to be done and worry about what will happen when their loved ones’ health and abilities decline even more. Stress can overwhelm both parties – exhausting caregivers and depressing the aging people for whom they care.

“It’s daunting. The stresses are very high,” said a man who did not want to be identified, but has helped care for his mother-in-law (who suffers from dementia) in his home for years. “There’s a sense of being trapped. You’re doing it out of love, but it can be very overwhelming.”

“Frequently we see caregivers who are overwhelmed,” said Nancy Tatum, eldercare coordinator for Fairfax County, Virginia. “It’s a very important thing to know when to ask for help. Caregivers need a break to take care of themselves. Just remember that you’re only human, that you can’t be all things to all people. You have to set limits on your caregiving,” Tatum said.


Caregivers shouldn’t hesitate to explore all available options for help, said Bishop. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help whenever you need it,” she said. “It’s not just family members who can help, but friends and professional caregivers, too.”

Getting enough sleep and exercise, plus eating well, are also essential, said the man who cares for his mother-in-law. “You’ve got to take care of yourself or you can’t take care of your elderly relative.”


Besides respite from caregiving tasks, those who care for the elderly need encouragement. “I strongly encourage caregivers if at all possible to connect with a support group because members can give you some helpful hints,” said Tatum. “There may be somebody in the group who is a little further along in this long caregiving process who can help. Plus, you can be yourself, let down your defenses, laugh or cry or do whatever you need to express yourself without worrying about it.”

Churches often host support groups for caregivers. “Churches are a good source of help,” Tatum said, “because they offer support groups and often have volunteers willing to help with caregiving.”

Some churches also provide activities for seniors to keep busy. “The faith community offers a lot for seniors, and it can be very helpful for people to check that out and take advantage of all those resources,” said Sharon Lynn, director of ElderLink, a nonprofit program that coordinates and manages many aspects of care for elderly people.

Adult children and their aging parents alike said prayer helps them handle the stress of their situations. “We really do believe in the power of prayer,” said Bishop of herself and her elderly father, Gene Youngberg. “It’s given us the strength to meet every challenge we encounter.”

Enjoying humor and fun activities together also helps relieve stress and reminds caregivers and their parents that their relationships are about much more than just fulfilling responsibilities. With a little creativity, adult children and aging parents can overcome their limitations to savor simple moments of enjoyment. For example, if a parent is bound to a wheelchair, the parent and caregiver can still go to a park and enjoy a paved nature trail.  

Making the most of the time they have together now can help caregivers and their aging parents face the loss of how life used to be when they were younger. “Sometimes there are awkward moments when you realize that [as parent and child] your roles have been reversed, but if you have the attitude of wanting to help each other no matter what, you’ll get along well,” Bishop said.

“There’s really a chance for those old roles that parents and children had when the children were young to be changed for the better when adult children care for their parents,” said Lynn. “We can’t change history, but we can change how we react to it and how we communicate in the present. And the experience of giving and receiving care can bring adult children and their parents closer together. It can increase their love for each other.”

Even when the stress of caregiving eclipses the loving feelings between adult children and their aging parents, however, they can count on God to provide the strength they need to carry on. “It’s not just warm feelings that motivate us – it’s also a sense of responsibility, of commitment that grows out of our relationship to the person we love and to God,” said the man who cares for his mother-in-law. “When the warm feelings aren’t there, we still choose to act in love toward them.”

As you care for your aging parents, you’ll likely find many resources in your area – from churches to social service agencies – through your local telephone directory. Here are some websites that can connect you to even more help: