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How Caring for Elderly Parents at Home Is Different Than Caring for Children

The life cycle comes full circle when adult children turn caregivers for parents. Millions in the sandwich generation face this challenge but few are prepared for having a live-in elderly parent amidst busy lives and careers, not to mention still having kids at home. Besides, most elderly parents fare just fine on their own—until the situation changes. A fall. Dementia. Heart failure. Cancer. Parkinson’s. Diabetes. Post-surgery complications. Financial woes. Any number of things can make independent living impractical or unsafe, thus requiring an adult child’s intervention.

Adjustments come with this new reality. It’s important adult children recognize that caring for a parent is a very different scenario than caring for a child. For starters, the parent is an adult with a lifetime of experience who, absent an illness affecting cognition, is able to make decisions about their own daily routine and well-being.

With improved medical treatments and preventive health measures leading to increased life spans, the senior population is growing and with it the likelihood adult children will find themselves in charge of an aging parent’s or other senior loved one’s care. A multigenerational family can be enriching as long as everyone’s needs are met and no one’s left feeling burdened or unsupported.

Guidelines for Elder Care at Home

Whatever precipitating factors prompt adult children to step up as caregivers, there are basic guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Caring for children follows fairly predictable patterns that align with well-known developmental age milestones. Conversely, caring for elderly parents is more unpredictable in terms of how much assistance they’ll need and when. An elderly parent’s health can change dramatically with a single episode. Caregivers need be mindful of the fact that their parent’s physical and mental capacities will diminish. This may be a progressive process, or it may happen all at once. Therefore, expectations need to be tempered.
  • Speaking to an elderly parent can be fraught with emotion because the adult child was raised by this person and is now in charge of their care. In this role reversal, the caregiver should avoid parenting the parent by micromanaging, as it can only be a source of unease, even resentment. Caregivers should empower seniors so they maintain as much autonomy and dignity as possible.
  • Whereas parents expect to handle child care largely on their own, an adult taking on the care of an elderly parent shouldn’t try to manage the task alone, although many do. If siblings can play a part, they should be brought into the mix. Professional support is available through geriatric nurse and primary care physician consultations as well as in-home senior care providers.
  • Multigenerational family units are not the norm in Western culture; therefore, many caregivers are not well versed in the aging process. Before making any decisions about moving Mom or Dad in, a family meeting should be convened. Respecting the parent’s needs and wishes is paramount, rather than making assumptions or deciding for them in a power play. Seniors should not be pressured or badgered into living arrangements they don’t want. Right at Home has created a downloadable RightConversationsSM Guide to help families overcome communication challenges and approach the subject of care.
  • Since few people anymore grow up in a house with live-in grandparents, caregivers are often at a loss for how to deal with senior parents. That’s especially true as parents’ physical abilities and mental faculties decline. Caregivers should seek expert advice before making tough choices—from bringing in qualified home care help to implementing long-term care plans.

Giving Senior Parents Their Agency

Adult children share a whole history with Mom and Dad that doesn’t just go away when the dynamics of who’s taking care of who change. The elderly parent may now be dependent on a son or daughter for care, but they’re still the parent—with all the roles, memories and emotions that come with that, not to mention the new experiences and feelings that surface in this latter stage of life.

The best thing caregivers can do is accept with grace their senior parents’ changes as part of the continuum of life. Sons and daughters have the privilege of helping make that passage as safe, joyful and meaningful as possible. If caregiving is seen from the lens of gift rather than burden, then the experience is likely to be less stressful than it already is.

Right at Home can help with in-home care from a few hours a day to around-the-clock care, live-in care, and respite care. Our team will work with your family to select compatible, qualified professional caregivers to ensure your loved one’s well-being at home. Our unique five-step process provides just the right fit for your family.

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Author Leo Adam Biga

Leo Adam Biga is a veteran freelance journalist and author who writes stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. The Omaha native and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate is the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” Follow his work at

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