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As your roles are reversed and you suddenly become the caregiver to someone who was once your caregiver, it may become difficult to relate and find the right balance. You may jump in like you were built to do it, or you may be resistant and in a state of denial that your strong, independent mom or dad suddenly needs help. Both feelings are completely normal. Much like raising children, there is no manual for caring for our parents and every relationship is different.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes, when I spend a lot of time with my parents, we all revert back to when I was a child and they were in charge. Those are the roles we are used to and we tend to slip back into them.
A few years ago, my family went on a group vacation – my parents, my husband and I and my two adult brothers (both well into their 20s). We all stayed in an apartment together and had to share bathrooms and living space. My poor husband said he felt like he was in bizarro-world watching my grown brothers, who normally get along, arguing over the bathroom like children. We all slipped back into our old roles and the things that annoyed us back then were even more annoying now, as it had been decades since we’d shared living space.
It’s not surprising, then, that when we are forced to reverse these roles, it can be met with conflict. So how do you reverse the roles but still maintain the bond?
Regardless of the level of care you are providing, one thing that can remain constant is how you communicate, barring cognitive challenges. Here are some tips on how to communicate better with your parent.
• Learn the healer’s art of “bearing witness.” This means practicing active listening and suppressing the urge to intervene with solutions. This isn’t just new territory for you; this is new territory for them, particularly if they have always been very healthy.
It can take a long time to accept that you can no longer do the things you used to do. I have had a medical condition for the past 6 years that has limited my physical abilities. My preferred form of exercise has always been kickboxing or running. Even though it has been 6 years since I have done those activities, it still gets me down and I have yet to find a replacement that gives me the same feeling. Your parents may take longer than you think is “acceptable” to adapt to their situation. Allow them the time to heal and listen to their feelings, rather than dismissing them.
• Choose your battles wisely. Attempting to address an irrational situation with rationality is generally futile, and will increase conflict with no resolution.
If it isn’t impacting safety, don’t make it your hill to die on. Does your mom prefer to keep the utensils on the counter because she doesn’t think the drawer is clean enough, or she prefers the easy access? Let her keep them on the counter. It isn’t hurting anyone, even if it is driving you crazy seeing a cluttered counter. Does your mom like to turn on the oven for heat instead of wasting energy heating the whole house? This would be a hill to die on, since it could cause a fire. Perhaps you can purchase a space heater for her, which would accomplish the same task, only much safer. Collaborate on solutions together, rather than just telling her what to do.
• Ask for your parent’s opinion about a non-provocative issue to offer them an opportunity to feel respected and still relevant. Remember, they have walked your path before and have some valuable learnings to share. Even if they didn’t do it perfectly, we can all learn from our mistakes.
I had a client who was blind and in poor health. In her career, she was a superintendent for a large school district. Whenever I would discuss issues or concerns about my son’s schools, she would light up at the opportunity to share her wisdom about schools. She provided me with valuable information that I was grateful to have and it made her feel good to be able to contribute. Win win.
While caregiving can be extremely challenging at times, this is also your opportunity to really connect with your parents and collect their stories and history for future generations. I have gathered a few fun games and activities to do that can spark sharing.
1. Memory Dice: I heard about this idea in a discussion about Alzheimer’s disease care, but I think it can be equally valuable in family sharing. There are dice with specific prompts, but I thought these Mind Spark Blocks were a neat idea because you can change the topics each time, giving you more freedom. You can do anything from “favorite meals,” “favorite vacation,” “earliest childhood memory” or “my first day of preschool” to more serious topics like “hopes and dreams in your 20s,” “bucket list,” or “biggest health fears.” You can take turns playing or make it an interview. The choices are endless.
2. Create a Biography: Of course, you don’t need a book or tool for this. You can just fire up your laptop or video camera and go. I personally need a bit more structure and came across this Homemade Biography that you can go through together. There are a ton of options out there, or if you are more creative you can make your own video biography or photo history book. The important thing is to preserve the memories while you can, and what better time than now, when you are spending so much time together.
3. Recipe Book: The one thing I miss the most, outside of the hugs and kisses from my grandmothers is their food. My paternal grandmother was from Jordan and made the most delicious Middle Eastern sweets and meals that none of my aunts have come close to replicating. My maternal grandmother was from Colombia and made amazing soups, rice pudding and traditional Colombian foods that I have not had since she passed away nearly 20 years ago.
Even if you know how to make your mother or father’s famous dishes, take the opportunity to write the recipes down with them so that your children and grandchildren will have the opportunity to share these dishes with their families. There are so many ways to create a recipe book, from photocopying recipes and putting them in sheet protectors in a binder to creating your own published book. I like this Recipe Journal since it is simple and doesn’t feel like a big production.
4. Family History Fun: When my husband and I first got married, someone gave us a Mad Libs book on how well you know your spouse. It was really fun to do, so I started wondering if there was something similar for families. It turns out, there are several family Mad Libs type books. This Mad Libs Family Tree in particular looked really fun, but there are several to choose from.
Do you have special ways that you connect with your parents to get out of the caregiver/caree role?