Home Life Children caregiving for aging parents feel anger, stress, frustration

Children caregiving for aging parents feel anger, stress, frustration


Most of us come into the world viewing our parents as healthy, strong, and everlasting. As we grow and age, the naive feeling that they are a perpetual part of our lives fades. Their hearing weakens, their gait slows, their memories dim, and the experience can provoke anger, anxiety, fear, and frustration in adult children.

“”Many people struggle as they witness an age-related decline in their parents’ functioning,” said Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University and the director of its Center on Longevity. “Cultural scripts that greatly value agency and autonomy equate vulnerability with failure. Pushing that message to its extreme, we all fail at some point.”

It’s a stressful transition when adult children begin to see their parents less as capable caregivers and more as those needing care themselves. Children begin to wonder how quickly a decline will accelerate, how financially sound their parents are, and their future living situation.

The shifting roles between child and parent can challenge family dynamics, made more complicated by negative stereotypes about aging, which contribute to the feeling that growing older is something people must resist or deny.


“It’s a strange shift from when they were responsible for you. Now you might be responsible for them, and they’re not listening to your orders the way an 8-year-old would,” said Alan Castel, principal investigator at UCLA’s Memory & Lifespan Cognition Lab and author of “Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging.”

A desire to deny the decline

Children experience subtle grief as their aging parents begin to lose functioning. Children may want to deny their parents’ decline, which experts say can be amplified by a culture suggesting aging should be fought or hidden.

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Hair dye and wrinkle cream are embraced while hearing aids and walkers are shunned. Negative stereotypes about aging can complicate the dynamic between adult children who see their parents needing help and parents who are apt to reject anything that identifies them as older or more vulnerable.

“When you think of an older adult, you think of maybe wise or kind, but explicitly and implicitly, we also see older people as smelly, slow, bad drivers, stubborn or crotchety,” Castel said.

Challenges of the ‘sandwich generation.’

The natural and everyday stresses of grappling with an aging parent are made all the more difficult by competing for caregiving demands. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a child 18 or older. About 1 in 7 financially supports an aging parent and a child.

Among all adults with at least one parent age 65 or older, 30% say their parents need help caring for themselves. The exact figure holds for emotional support. These adults are part of what experts call the “sandwich generation,” those who are simultaneously caring for their children and aging parents. The relentless financial and emotional stress can take a toll and lead to what Castel calls “caregiver stress,” especially when the aging parent doesn’t want the care.

That feeling you can’t name?: It’s called emotional exhaustion. “There’s so much frustration in wanting to respect a parent but also help,” he said.

Communicate, pick battles, and seek support.

Good communication can make the transition easier when a parent’s health is deteriorating. “It’s thinking about communicating things effectively without condescending,” Castel said. “Sometimes it’s saying, ‘I love you, and I’m doing this because it can make your life better in some ways. I know it doesn’t feel comfortable.'”

Castel suggests asking older parents questions such as, “Do you like it when I do this?” or “Do you know why I’m doing this?” An older parent may say, “I hate it when you keep telling me to wear a hearing aid.” But the child can reply with, “Well, I feel like I have to repeat things, or you sometimes miss things. I’m happy to repeat things if it’s important, but it causes me some frustration.”

Children need to pick their battles. If a parent’s hearing decreases but can still participate in a conversation, maybe don’t push the hearing aid. If memory is declining, but no one is getting lost coming home, continuing to observe may be a good strategy.

Children can be transparent with their parents that they may not be able to do as many things as they used to while also assuring their parents they will do their best to help them participate in meaningful activities. Children can also help navigate the transition by seeking support from siblings or caregiver support groups.

‘Accepting aging and mortality can be liberating.’

Aging is normal, even if our culture suggests otherwise. Experts say it’s essential for people to accept the process and acknowledge some things get better with age. Older people may be more emotionally intelligent, informed, and deliberate in ways that serve them well.

“The reality is that virtually all people will encounter physical problems as they age,” Carstensen said. “The issue is less about avoiding the inevitable and more about living satisfying lives with limitations. Accepting aging and mortality can be liberating.”

Acceptance can be the goal, though watching a parent age can be challenging because of what’s happening to the parent and what the child knows will happen to them. “It scares us,” Castel said. “We think, ‘That could be me one day. And, if everything goes well, that will be me one day.’ One thing to say to yourself is, ‘How do I want my child to treat me?'”


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