Caring Currents

How Being a Parent Paves the Way for Parent-Caring

Last updated: May 21, 2009

Image by berendbotje54 used under the creative commons attribution license.

Child care and elder-parent care have a lot of parallels. I say this from the authority of having four of the former and two of the latter. It's risky to compare the two ends of the age spectrum, I'm well aware. Someone's sure to take me to task for implying that older adults are like children "“- which, I agree, is as untrue as it is disrespectful.


Time and again, my aging parents' needs have called up certain of my traits and skills in a distinctly deja-vu way. Been there, done that before. Turns out it's a silver lining "“- pun intended "“- to the hard work of being a parent. It was practice for my future of looking after my parents!

So, for example, here are six parenting traits that still are helping me now "“- and why:

  • My all-hands-on-deck approach to climbing the learning curve. There's been no end to new situations to grasp. (Vascular dementia. Macular degeneration. Pelvic ring. Transitional cell carcinoma. Ohmigosh.) On the other hand, I didn't go home with my firstborn knowing anything about jaundice, clogged milk ducts, or what the heck he was crying about all the time. Different crises, higher stakes now, but similar levels of abject ignorance.

So I'm in repeat mode on my approach: a) Ask the doctor (geriatricians and internists have nurse-call-in lines, too); b) Read as much as I can on each problem, even the opposing opinions, til I can make up my own mind or at least talk to the doctor intelligently about it; and c) Rabidly compare notes with friends. Of course, with my babies I could also d) Endlessly quiz my mom. Since I can't do that now, I ask more friends. [Or find new ones who can relate.] (

  • My toughened hide. As a mom, I've learned the hard way to let a certain amount of toddler tantrums and teen angst roll off my back. It's good preparation when, say, dementia steals your genial dad. (Or worse, from what I hear from others.) I know there's a big picture. Besides, occasionally being treated with all the warmth of an ungrateful wretch makes the eventual thanks-I-love-yous all the sweeter.

  • My ability to read body language. It speaks louder than words. I've always worried more about the child lying lethargically on the sofa than the one bellyaching about a bellyache on a school morning. Similarly, I know to discount my Dad's chipper "I'm fine!" and instead watch whether his hands are rubbing that sore spot on his side and log how much time he's dozing on the sofa.

  • My now-strong stomach. I could never stand blood or guts or other bodily fluids (in movies or in real life) until faced with those of my own flesh and blood. Amazing how you snap out of weenieness in a crisis. True, I think, whether mopping up after your young or your old.

  • My ability to lob a well-placed 'no.' Another cookie before dinner? An extravagant new pair of jeans? A bad word sprung during a bad mood? No, nope, not in this house. I've never had any trouble as a mother saying "no" when I felt I needed to. I'm not saying you can or should boss your parents around, but firmness in the right circumstances isn't bossiness. As with kids, it's having the other party's best interests at heart because you, at the moment, are responsible for them. So when my parents wanted me to go buy liquor while I was caring for them (as the only driver) and I knew the doctor had recommended against drinking, I refused. When Mom told me to leave the hospital and sleep but I felt she needed company (and an advocate), remembering I was justified fortified me to overrule.

  • My capacity to endure boredom "“ I mean, my patience. I used to say that a full day with a 1-year-old seemed to drag like a week (although a year zipped by in the blink of an eye!). A mere hour with an 87-year-old who insists on reading the same patch of newspaper over and over can sometimes streeeeeeeeetch like that day with a toddler. Time warps. And don't get me started about how long too many successive evenings of "Wheel of Fortune" can feel! Or sorting through confusing financial paperwork. Coping demands recalibrating... Working harder to relax and savor the moment... Forgetting about the past, or what else I should be doing, or what's to come....

This list hasn't even touched yet on the specific parenting skills that transfer well: first aid, reading aloud, cajoling a picky eater, biting your tongue so you're not saying "Be careful!" every 10 seconds. Perhaps that's another list. Meanwhile, I'm curious: What traits come in handy both in parenting and parent-caring for you?