Caring for Ailing Parents

portrait of asian father and son.

Parents care for children, and then children grow up to become parents and care for their own children.  That’s the natural order of things—except when it isn’t.

Sometimes parents cannot care well for themselves, and need others to help. This is when children, purely out of love and concern, often begin to care for a parent.  Sometimes the caregiving journey is short-lived, because the need for care is temporary—such as when a parent has surgery or goes through treatment to regain health.  Sometimes it’s a long journey because the parent has a chronic illness such as dementia, or the after-effects of a stroke. When a child cares for an ailing parent, how is the parent/child relationship affected, and what can the child do to make the journey easier?

Often the caregiver job is not a planned role that is on the calendar with a list of tasks provided. It often happens suddenly with incomplete information and no specific job description, usually arriving in the middle of an already busy life filled with other responsibilities.

If it’s temporary, then the care may be intense for a brief period of time, and the usual life responsibilities may need to be delegated to others for that time span. This may involve travel to another city, finding alternate child care, and making arrangements at work.  It’s stressful and hard for a brief period of time, but then life resumes—or does it?

As a child, even an adult child, one usually views parents as venerable, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Needing to care for a parent shakes that vision.  The parent may not be that imagined super hero after all.  That shift in perception creates a small emotional earthquake, a realization that the child may one day not have help from the parent, and need to navigate life without the guidance and support of a parent.

Caregiving requires that the child become responsible for things like filling the prescription and seeing that it is taken, and that the doctor’s directions are followed, like resting rather than doing the household chores.  As a child tries to “follow doctor’s orders,” the child asserts a certain amount of control, which is not the natural order of things.  How does a child do this while preserving the relationship?

This is tough stuff, and calls for an enormous capacity to love through it all, as well as a tremendous effort to be other-centered.  At the same time that the child is feeling this small earthquake, the parent is feeling a bigger earthquake.  The parent is relying on the child—how unnatural!  The parent remembers changing that person’s diapers, and now that babe is telling him/her what to do!  The parent also feels guilt over taking the child away from all those responsibilities back home, and needing assistance at this time.

This is the starting point—feeling the love and seeing the parent’s discomfort.  Both are sailing uncharted waters.  Communicate the love, listen to the struggles, and seek help from others.

Communicating the love will certainly involve saying it out loud, but it’s also an unspoken communication.  Show the parent that this hard thing is a love gift. Demonstrate it with the hug, the back pat, the insight to know what would really help at this time and then providing it. Communicate that it is an honor to give back and that the opportunity is appreciated.

Open the door to hearing the struggle. Ask the questions that open the door and then listen with the whole being.  Listen reflectively, and accept what is felt.  Feelings are meant to be accepted, not problems to solve.

Recognize and look for the needed resources.    Individuals tend to have their own support team, so look to yours and don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help.  The support team may not be able to give the help needed at that moment, but they may know someone who can. Call organizations that specialize in caregiver information and referral, such as AGE of Central Texas.

Realize, too, that though this time of caregiving is temporary, it may be preparation for a longer time of caregiving in the future. The lessons learned now will make the next time easier, and can actually grow and strengthen relationships.

Faith Unger is the Program Director for CaregiverU at AGE of Central Texas.  CaregiverU offers free caregiving classes year-round throughout Williamson, Travis, Bastrop and Hays counties.  For more information, visit

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