Cognitive and physical decline do not take away their legacies as adults. We may have to provide care that many would consider demeaning, but when this care is given out of love, it is never undignified. Part of caregiving with love is keeping in mind that this person is our parent, the person who raised us. Respect and preservation of dignity are their due.

Reconciling the Past and Present

My father developed instant dementia because of a failed brain surgery. The irony, of course, was that this surgery was supposed to correct the results of a World War II brain injury and prevent the possibility of dementia.

This abrupt change was devastating to my family and very difficult for us to accept. One day he was my dad. He was growing older and frailer, of course, but he was still Dad. After he came out of surgery, he was a man plagued by paranoia and hallucinations; a man who had no way of differentiating between our reality and the warped version his brain created.

A new aspect of his personality had surfaced after the botched surgery, and we came to call this part of him “Herman.” Sometimes, we could coax Dad away from frightening thoughts by convincing him that Herman was responsible. Mostly we couldn’t, but this technique helped my family and me reconcile the old Dad with the new one. Dad was still present no matter what; he just exhibited some new thoughts and behaviors that were entirely out of his control.

Look to the Past to Guide You

It is challenging to cope with how age, illness and caregiving alter our relationships, especially those between adult children and their parents. Many refer to it as a role reversal, but this is not a dignified way of framing these changes. So, how do we keep our attitudes straight when we are caring for a parent? We must remember that Dad (and this applies to Mom, too) was and continues to be our parent, no matter what ailments befall him or what duties we perform for him.

Living in the past is not healthy but allowing it to inform how you think about and interact with your aging parents can help ensure the care you provide is infused with dignity and respect.

Use some of the following tips to maintain this balance. Again, these suggestions can be applied to any care recipient you struggle to sustain a relationship with due to physical and/or mental changes.

  • Find pictures from your childhood where the parent in question is holding you, playing with you or giving you a gift you wanted. Remember those nurturing childhood days and keep those memories in mind as you care for this person.
  • Try to find tidbits from the elder’s career and charitable work to remind yourself that this person had a positive impact on other people, too. Look for scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, photos, plaques, awards or old letters to remind you of their rich legacy.
  • Be aware that needing to accompany a parent to the bathroom or change an adult brief is challenging for most adult children, especially when the parent is of the opposite gender. However, most of us learn to do this without giving it a second thought. We eventually get over the discomfort. The important thing is not to let this duty, as physically and emotionally taxing as it may be, cause you to fall back into the role reversal mindset. You are providing care, but you are not caring for a baby or child. The same goes for cutting up food, hand feeding and other assistance our elders require as dementia or other ailments limit their abilities.
  • Remember, one day you may wind up on the other side of this caregiving experience. Put yourself into their shoes and ask yourself what you would want if you were in their position. Many aging parents are reluctant or unable to say much about how they feel. Please do everything you can to grant them dignity and respect. It’s distressing enough to have your abilities taken from you without also being regarded as inferior. Treat these losses as matter-of-fact parts of life.
  • Body language is telling. Even if you say all the right things but perform your duties with sighs, eye-rolls, tension and annoyance, your elder will feel that their presence is burdensome. You are not wrong to be stressed, frustrated or upset. This is neither how your parent envisioned aging, nor how you thought your relationship would turn out as you both grew older. What you need to diffuse this resentment is help. Get outside assistance by hiring in-home care, taking your parent to adult day care a few times each week or considering a move to senior living. Then, you can get rest, work on your own health and spend time with your elder as their child first and a caregiver second. We are human and can only do so much. Help is often a necessity.

This person will always be your parent, no matter what nature takes from him or her. In your heart you know this, but stress, fatigue and frustration can bring out the worst in us. Forgetting that this person was once a competent adult is normal. However, when that happens, we need to explore other options for helping us adjust our attitudes and providing our elders with the esteem they deserve.

Remember the words dignity and respect this Father’s Day. If you are one of the many people who was raised in a dysfunctional family and is struggling to care for an elder who didn’t properly care for you, please consider counseling. You have every right to your feelings, but gaining a deeper understanding of why this person failed you can help promote healing, forgiveness and personal growth. You may then find that you can have some compassion for this person, whether you decide to provide their care or step back from this role.

Thank you, Dad, for being my dad. You were, to me, the best father possible. If I ever failed to treat you with the respect you deserved, please forgive me. I tried my imperfect best to let you know that I’ve always respected you. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I will forever be proud to be your daughter.