Role Reversal: The Emotional Side of Caring for Your Aging Parent

If you find yourself facing the prospect of becoming the primary caretaker of your aging parent, you likely have many concerns. If you have already started the process of providing primary care for your aging mother or father, those concerns likely are now more concrete in their nature and perhaps even more significant than you might have imagined before you took over your role as the primary caretaker for your parent.

One area in which you may have concerns and questions is likely in regard to the emotional side of caring for your aging parent. In this article, we address a variety of issues associated with the emotional side of caring for your parent.

The issues that we will address with you in this article associated with the emotional side of serving as the primary caretaker for your aging parent are:

  • Feelings of guilt
  • Chronic stress
  • Feelings of depression
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Feelings of anger
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Ongoing frustration
  • Feelings of hopelessness

You Are Not Alone

Before taking a deeper dive into a discussion of the emotional side of caring for your aging parent, it is important for you to understand that you are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of adult children across the United States are in the role of primary caretaker for their aging parent. Each and every day they are experiencing the same types of emotions you may find yourself facing at this time.

Feelings of Guilt

Guilt can manifest itself in a variety of ways when you are the primary caregiver of your aging parent. Indeed, guilt is one of the most commonly experienced emotions among the hundreds of thousands of adult children who are in a caretaker role in regard to their aging parents.

As noted a moment ago, guilt can and will manifest itself in a number of different ways when you assume a caretaker role for your parent:

  • Guilt that you’re not doing enough for your parent: You may be spending the greater part of the day (and night) engaged in caretaking activities for your mother of father. Objectively speaking, you may be doing a good job as your parent’s caretaker. Despite all of this, you may feel guilty because you fear you are not doing enough for your parent.
  • Guilt that you are neglecting your spouse or children: With all the time you devote to tending to your parent’s needs, you may find yourself feeling guilty because you’re not spending enough time with your spouse or children.
  • Guilt about things from the past: When you experience something of a role reversal and become the primary caretaker for your mom or dad, you may find yourself feeling guilty about things that happened a long time ago. You may find yourself experiencing guilt about incidents from your childhood that you have not thought about in a very, very long time. 
  • Guilt about feeling guilty: Many people who serve as the primary caretaker of their parent find themselves feeling guilty about feeling guilty. They think that they should become something of a superhuman and be able to rise above emotions like feeling guilty when caring for a parent.  

Chronic Stress

One of the emotional responses to being a primary caretaker to an elderly parent that is most talked about from people in this type of role is chronic stress. Left unaddressed, chronic stress can result in physical harm and emotional damage to a caretaker. Indeed, chronic stress has the potential to become so overwhelming that a caretaker gets to the point where he or she cannot even provide the assistance to an older parent that is needed.

The Mayo Clinic makes it clear that if a caretaker is experiencing persistent or chronic stress, he or she needs to take action to address that emotion, which may include seeking professional help from a counselor or therapist. It may also mean getting professional assistance of some sort to aid in caring for an older parent.

The Mayo Clinic also highly recommends being as proactive as possible to address growing stress arising from caretaking for an older parent. Examples of activities a person can utilize to reduce caretaker stress as recommended by the Mayo Clinic includes:

  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi or massage
  • Keeping a sense of humor
  • Spending time with family and friends
  • Setting aside time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music

Feelings of Depression

Depression among caregivers is a widespread problem in this day and age. In fact, the Family Caregiver Alliance reports:

One of today’s all-too silent health crisis is caregiver depression. A conservative estimate reports that 20% of family caregivers suffer from depression, twice the rate of the general population. Of clients of California’s Caregiver Resource Centers, nearly 60% show clinical signs of depression. And former caregivers may not escape the tentacles of this condition after caregiving ends. A recent study found that 41% of former caregivers of a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia experienced mild to severe depression up to three years after their spouse had died. In general, women caregivers experience depression at a higher rate than men.

The Family Caregiver Alliance has developed a list of warning signs for a caregiver that may be headed to significant depression:

  • A change in eating habits resulting in unwanted weight gain or loss
  • A change in sleep patterns—too much sleep or not enough
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • A loss of interest in people and/or activities that once brought you pleasure
  • Becoming easily agitated or angered
  • Feeling that nothing you do is good enough
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or attempting suicide
  • Ongoing physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain

As is the case with chronic stress, caretaker depression left unaddressed can have severe consequences – both for the caretaker and the person in need of assistance. A caretaker experiencing persistent depression is well served seeking assistance from a therapist or counselor. There are therapists and counselors who focus their work on assisting caretakers.

Feelings of Inadequacy 

Despite the fact that a caretaker typically is making a significant contribution to the life and wellbeing of an aging parent, an adult child in this role nevertheless may experience feelings of inadequacy. Indeed, in some instances, these feelings of inadequacy can be persistent and profound. 

This represents other type of emotion that can stem from being the caretaker of an aging parent that can fester and become overwhelming and very harmful over time. As a consequence, if a person cannot get beyond a feeling of inadequacy arising from caretaking for an older parent, seeking professional support and assistance from a qualified counselor or therapist with a background in working with caretakers is advisable. 

Feelings of Anger

Anger can rise in a situation in which an adult child is the caretaker for an aging parent. The anger can go both ways – a caretaker can become angry with a parent, a parent can become angry with a caretaker. Ultimately, both a caretaker and a parent may become so angry that an explosion ensues.

It is particularly important for a caretaker to take steps to tamp down anger before there is an explosion. The Mayo Clinic recommends a series of tactics to assist a person who is serving as a caretaker for his or her parent. These tactics are:

  • Record your feelings. Keep a daily written journal to release those negative feelings onto the page. When you’ve had a good day with mom, record those experiences too!
  • Join a support group. There are caregiving support groups in your community where you can share your experiences with others, get advice, and receive empathy for your hard work.
  • Don’t neglect friends and family. Many caregivers wall themselves off from their normal lives and become socially isolated, and that’s not healthy. Make time to spend with your kids, spouse, and friends to stay grounded and refreshed.
  • Care for yourself. As a caregiver, you will feel more patient and rested when you take care of yourself. That means exercising regularly, meditation, eating a healthy diet, sleeping 7 to 8 hours per day, and not abusing drugs or alcohol. Also, you should get a complete physical from your doctor annually.
  • Take a break. When you are starting to be short with everyone who matters in your life, or are feeling rundown, take a break from caregiving. Recruit a friend or family member to step in or pay a professional licensed respite caregiver instead.

Chronic Anxiety

Serving as the primary caretaker of an aging parent is a tremendous responsibility. This role certainly can result in even the most even keeled individual suffering anxiety. The key is to try to prevent the anxiety from becoming persistent of chronic.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has set forth a number of the primary reasons why a caretaker – including the caretaker of an aging parent – can experience persistent or chronic anger:

  • Managing many responsibilities.
  • Having to do medical tasks you aren’t prepared for.
  • Feeling like you don’t have control over your own life.
  • Concerns about your loved one’s well-being.
  • Uncertainty about the future.
  • Your loved one’s emotions about their cancer diagnosis and treatment.
  • Your own emotions about your loved one’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.
  • Not having enough support from your family, friends, healthcare team, or other people in your life.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has also created a master list of tactics a caregiver can – should – employ in order to address anxiety issues:

  • Ask for help
  • Accept help
  • Prioritize tasks
  • Make time for yourself
  • Spend time with family and friends
  • Exercise
  • Get professional support to help in caregiving
  • Join a support group
  • Connect with other caregivers
  • Try relaxation techniques
  • Seek support and assistance from a counselor or therapist

Ongoing Frustration

When it comes to caring for an aging parent, it is important to understand that frustration is to be expected. The same strategies that were just set forth to assist with anxiety are useful to address frustration as well. 

Women and men who have been the primary caretakers of their aging parents are nearly universal in making the point that a good way of addressing caretaking frustration is to talk to others who are involved in the same type of caregiving work. This can be done by networking with other caregivers as well as by joining a support group.

Feelings of Hopelessness

If any one of the different types of emotions discussed in this article are permitted to fester, a caretaker certainly can begin to feel overwhelmed. The thing is that oftentimes a caretaker will be overwhelmed as the result of multiple mounting emotions. For example, a caretaker might feel swamped by depression, anxiety, frustration, and inadequacy at the same time. All of this can result on a caretaker feeling utterly hopeless. 

Again, the key is to be as proactive as possible in seeking appropriate assistance to deal with rising emotions experienced as a caretaker for an aging parent. Keep in mind that appropriate assistance to address rising emotions very well may mean seeking out appropriate counseling or therapy.