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Embracing Role Reversals

Margery Pabst Steinmetz - October 30, 2017 12:44 PM

With caregiving often comes the issue of role reversal: being parents for our parents, caring for spouses deep in the tasks of caregiving and, at times, becoming patients when our emotional and physical needs require care.  We step in for siblings, for friends when their families need assistance.  Our children become parents for us as they serve meals and make beds.  All this reversal of roles requires a deft and flexible mix of skills and large quantities of patience.

I remember the day that I had to assume the parental role for my mother.  It was painful.  How could I request a report on medications she took during the day?  How would that make her feel? Suggesting bedtimes and reminding that showers needed to be taken did not fit. I felt ungainly, uncomfortable and resentful that the realities of the long chronic journey with  my mother now required that I be her parent.  And it would not be temporary.  This was the new reality. 

I could see the pain in her eyes too.  Her gaze questioned, "So it's come to this?"

Years later, I detected the same look in my husband's eyes.  We were no longer partners, peers, loving best friends.  The role had changed, his leukemia disabling much of his body and much of his mind.  Again a new reality.

So the title of this blog is "Embracing Role Reversals."  How in the world can any of us "embrace" such an emotionally painful situation?

Here are 3 actions that worked for me:

-TALK ABOUT IT:  Acknowledge the new reality of your relationship.  Discuss what you need to do differently. ("Mom, I need to remind you about your pills everyday.  I know you don't like that but the alternative is worse.  If you don't take them, you will feel worse.  I love you too much for that to happen.")

-IDENTIFY WHAT NEED NOT CHANGE:  Identify the parts of your relationship that will not change. ("Going to the movies once a week is one of the best times we have.  I love how we can discuss what we thought the movie meant afterward.  Going to the ice cream parlor isn't bad either!")

-BE KIND TO EACH OTHER:  Know that both of you are sad about the changes and frustrated too.  When you feel sadness or frustration taking over your actions and emotions, take a deep breath, providing a loving comment.  ("Darling, we are still having fun together and I love you so much.")

Margery Pabst Steinmetz is an author and facilitator.  She founded in 2007.  She is ECareDiary's caregiving expert.  Her radio show, "Caregivers Speak" will be aired on Tuesdays, October 10, November 14 and December 5 at 2PM Eastern.  For more caregiver resources, see and

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