As parents age and their physical health starts to decline, their adult children may choose to take the additional role of being a caregiver.  In many cases, adult children find themselves in this role abruptly and with little notice.  Deteriorating health, along with poor decisions by the parent, can leave the adult children with little choice but to intervene.

Of course family members want the parent to remain as independent as possible, but there often comes a time when the child must consider full time caregiving for the sake of health, safety and finances.  This is a role not to be taken lightly.  The child should take some time to examine the pros and cons of taking on such a role in order to prepare themselves fully for the mental and physical challenges that may lie ahead.

The pros/cons list mentioned in this article are certainly not comprehensive on either side.  It should be noted that if the child has had a tumultuous or complex relationship with the parent, this role should be given some serious thought.  In cases where there was abuse or neglect in the childhood home, taking on the caregiver role can put the adult child at serious risk of feeling as though these things were happening again in current time, perpetuating feelings of bitterness and helplessness.  Even in homes where this did not occur, all parent/child relationships have their blind spots and points of frustration.  It is important for the caregiver and parent to be aware of these blind spots to prevent unnecessary skirmishes or misunderstandings.

Some of the gratifying aspects of taking on this role may include:

  • There may be a sense of gratification on behalf of the adult child, knowing that he/she can be available and make sacrifices for the parent, as the parent did for the adult child earlier in life. A sense of “giving back,” so to speak.
  • There is an opportunity for the caregiver to get a sense of meaning and purpose in giving back to the parent in this way.
  • There may be an increased sense of communication and connection between the parent and child.  Old family traditions can be reminisced or even revived.

On the other hand, there are a variety of pitfalls and challenges in taking on this role, which include:

  • Depletion of family resources to provide full time care.
  • Disagreement with siblings about how to provide routine care.
  • Risk for caregiver burnout—emotional depletion to the point of exhaustion, where the caregiver feels as though he/she cannot give any more.
  • Potential decline of the adult child’s health due to the daily stresses involved with caregiving.

There are several ways in which a caregiver can manage stress—self-care is an essential piece of preventing burnout.  The caregiver should:

  • Ask for help. Delegate responsibilities when possible, such as grocery shopping, etc.
  • Seek emotional support from other caregivers (i.e., in person or online caregiver support groups).
  • Take breaks whenever possible (e.g., plan weekend vacations).
  • Plan self-reward whenever possible (e.g., listening to music, going to the movies, taking some time to sit and enjoy some coffee).
  • Maintain regular physician check ups.
  • Exercise whenever possible.
  • Prepare the spouse and at home family for the upcoming changes that will ensue with taking on this new role.

Family caregivers are incredibly important individuals with many strengths and limitations.  They can help improve their parents’ quality of life and maintain their sense of dignity; however, it can be easy for things like self-care to go by the wayside.  Self-care should be seen as a necessity, not a luxury.  As flight attendants often remind passengers: “For parents flying with young children, should the oxygen be released, remember to put it on yourself and then put the oxygen on your child.”  If the caregiver cannot take care of themselves, he will not be able to provide adequate care for his parent.