Does it ever seem like you and your parent’s can’t agree on anything? Is your aging loved one extremely critical? Does your mother try to make you feel guilty when you don’t do everything her way? Does your father clearly favor one of your siblings over you, when you’re the one that takes care of him every day?
If you answered yes to any – or perhaps all – of these questions, you’re not alone. I can’t count the number of people who have told me that their relationship with their aging parent is fraught with conflict and hurt feelings. And no wonder. We all have issues from our childhood, personality conflicts and unresolved problems. Why should it be any different for you and your parents now that you’re older?
In fact, there is good reason to expect more conflict between you and your aging parent as you become a caregiver. The average family caregiver spends eighteen hours a week tending to a parent or older adult. In the most severe cases, when the person being cared for lives in your home and has dementia, that figure increases to about eighty-seven hours of caregiving a week. That’s a lot of togetherness, even in ideal circumstances! Normally the situations under which we assume the caregiving role are far from optimal. The role changes that occur when you assume responsibility for your parent are difficult for all involved. For parents, accepting the losses and limitations of aging and facing their own mortality isn’t easy. For children, it can be both upsetting and frightening to see the people who once took care of them, unable to care for themselves. When a parent and child, each having to deal with their own issues, are forced into the new roles neither asked for, the setting is ripe for conflict. Furthermore, few of us enter the caregiving role free of hurt feelings or areas of disagreement. There is at least some friction in virtually all parent-child relationships almost from the time we are born. When you were a toddler and threw a tantrum because your father wouldn’t buy you candy, that was conflict. When you were fifteen and your mother wouldn’t let you date, even though all of your friends were doing it, that was conflict. Now that you’ve grown up, you may think that all of the “issues” have been resolved – and many of them probably have. But whether you are aware of it or not, there are still likely to be some areas of unresolved differences, even as new differences and conflicts arise.
It has often been said that whatever personality traits people have when they are young will only be magnified when they get older. A woman who’s fastidious about her housekeeping when she’s young, for example, may become more so as she ages. A man who has a short fuse when his children are little may be even quicker to anger when they are grown. The same holds true of relationships as we age. Problems that are present in relationships when we are young don’t just go away because we have grown up. In fact, unless we work to resolve them, they only become magnified and cause more trouble throughout the years. In addition, the stresses of growing old and the losses that accompany old age and illness can cause unexpected changes in your loved ones personality. An otherwise mild-mannered parent may start to snap at you or criticize you. A parent who appreciated your every gesture of kindness several years ago may now respond angrily instead of gratefully when you try to help. A father who once seemed unflustered by just about anything may become quick tempered and frustrated when his checkbook doesn’t balance or he can’t climb the steps like he used to. Caregivers personalities can change unexpectedly too. When plagued by an overwhelming sense of duty, lack of sleep and sheer exhaustion, even the most patient and loving caregiver can find herself behaving in ways she never imagined. Despite all that may be going against a harmonious relationship, you must try to resolve conflicts so that your aging family members get what is truly needed and your final years, months, or days together aren’t full of fighting and hurt feelings. Dealing with an aging parent, as with anyone, requires give and take. Sometimes you both have to compromise.
ALEXIS ABRAMSON, Ph.D. is cited as America’s leading, impassioned champion for the dignity and independence of those over 50. Abramson is the author of two highly acclaimed books — The Caregivers Survival Handbook and Home Safety for Seniors. For more information go to www.alexisabramson.com.