How Caring for a Parent Is Different

9 Ways Caring for a Parent Is a Special Kind of Care
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"The first half of our life is ruined by our parents and the second half by our children," Clarence Darrow famously quipped. And what about the millions of us in a "third half" -- taking care of an aging parent? Whether you find the experience encroaching or enriching, it's a uniquely seismic life phase.

Among the nation's 39.8 million unpaid caregivers of people over 65, more than 42 percent are looking after parents, according to 2011 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than one in four caregivers looks after a mother, and one in 10 looks after a father, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.

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Helping a parent is different from other kinds of caregiving. Here are some key reasons:

1. It's Your Life's Longest Relationship

You might know your siblings better or like your spouse more, but the parent-child tie is the one you've had, well, all your life. This means you've always known the person you're caring for, and vice versa. This intimate history, with its longstanding patterns, provides plenty of fodder for how smoothly things go (or don't).

The caregiving phase of your bond can stretch over decades, as more parents live to their 80s and 90s. "While people have cared for their parents throughout history, nowadays people are more acutely ill for very long periods," says Virginia Morris, coauthor of How to Care for Aging Parents. "It's not weeks or months, but many years."

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2. Parent Care Is the Last Chapter of Your First Family

There's a bittersweet nature to this duty. "These years of our parents' decline are the final phase of the family in which we grew up," says Francine Russo, author of They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents' Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. "Our roles and those of our sisters and brothers need to change, but change comes hard."

Morris adds, "The parent-child relationship is built, for many years, on the premise that our parents take care of us. So when those roles shift, it can be uncomfortable, unfamiliar, awkward, tense, and sad. Of course there can be rewards, but it's not like caring for someone who should get better, get stronger, or at least not get worse. Everyone knows where this job is headed."

3. Parent Care Tends to Sneak up on You

Spouses sign up "for better or for worse" and age together. Parent care, on the other hand, often leaps into one's busiest midlife years. The number of sandwich-generation caregivers -- those who care for both an aging parent and dependent kids -- is growing, says a 2013 Pew Research Center report. These caregivers often plunge into their parental-support role in a big "uh-oh" moment precipitated by a health crisis. "Even when the signs are clear that it's coming, we often look the other way, hoping that things will work out and our help won't be needed," Morris says.

4. Parent Care Is Optional

It's socially taboo to ditch a spouse in need and illegal to walk away from childcare. Helping a parent tends to involve more shades of gray. And it's most successful when we choose it freely, experts say.

"If you're doing it to repay some debt you think you owe, or to change the relationship, or to win a larger inheritance, then you should step back and examine this," Morris says. "If you feel it is something that was dumped on you by an unfair world, you will become bitter and angry. But when you decide that it's something that you choose to do, willingly, because it is the right thing to do, and decide how much you can do and what you can give with an open heart, then the job will be easier."

5. Parent Care Can Be the Ultimate Gift

"It's not always easy, but caring for a parent can be a last expression of your love and respect, whether because of or in spite of what's happened in the past," says Dale Atkins, a New York City psychologist.

Indeed, one of the most common motivations is to repay a parent for his or her sacrifices in raising you, experts say. "For many cultures, it's not a question of whether you will care for your parents; it's just your job," Atkins says. "It's not will you, but how will you?"

6. Parent Care Can Be a Chance to Rewrite History

Not everybody grew up with Ozzie and Harriet. Some see helping a parent who was unable or unwilling to help them as a personal badge of honor.

"When you're caring for a parent who wasn't the most loving person, you can change that legacy of behavior and, in doing so, give yourself the opportunity to increase your sense of self-worth and self-esteem, because you have compassion," Atkins says. "We can't change our parents, but we can change how we relate to a parent."

7. Parent Care Involves Awkward Role Reversals (Which Never Truly Reverse)

New responsibilities can collide with old expectations and ever-changing needs. There's no script! Both parties struggle to find new ways to interact.

Ultimately, you don't "parent" a parent. Even a mother or father rendered childlike by dementia isn't truly a child. "You're caring for an adult, someone who has had years of life, experience, and opinions, who is ill or disabled," Morris says. "If you can continue to treat them with respect and dignity, everyone will fare better."

8. Parent Care Is Colored by Many Competing Relationships

Nobody cares for a parent in a vacuum. In 75 percent of cases, one sibling is the caregiver, according to a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2014. (Odds are greater for daughters, the one who lives closest, the firstborn, and the one the parent has pegged for the job.) But other siblings, each with his or her own unique relationship to the parent, have opinions, too.

What kinds of time, resources, and engagement you have for parent care also depend on your partner's support and on the demands of other relationships -- with children, in-laws, stepparents, and/or grandparents.

9. Parent Care Is a Big "Teachable Moment"

Your behavior is a model. "Your children will see how you respond to your parents," Atkins says. "And they will take care of you in the same way."

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio