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When aging parents bicker

"Caregiving often calls us to lean into love we didn't know possible."
Tia Walker, "The Inspired Caregiver: Finding Joy While Caring for Those You Love"

It has long been said that grief is messy business and there is no wrong way to grieve. What if we consider that aging is the same?

With regard to aging parents, there are many dynamics to consider. There are families, marriages and friendships, as well as long histories of triumphs, losses and general life. There is the role reversal of the child becoming a caregiver and the parent becoming a dependent. One middle-aged caregiver told me, "Sometimes I feel like I'm talking to my teenage son, not my parents!" All of these dynamics can make helping aging parents difficult. We can experience helping our aging parents as an honor or as a practice in frustration. A question arises: How do I handle this in a way that respects my parents' wishes and needs while also taking care of my own?

One of the more difficult issues I often hear about from clients has to do with aging parents who bicker or bad mouth one another. Adult children feel stuck in the middle and forced to take sides, or they may worry about their parents' ability to cope with a partner's frustration.

The reasons for this type of behavior are many. Seniors may be fearful about being without one another after so many years together. Their fear may be expressed through lashing out. As health and energy levels change, patience can grow thin and defenses are lowered after years of "staying quiet." My aging patients have told me, "Advice can be very irritating," "I don't like to be told what to do" and "My kids think they know it all, but they don't." 

Where do you start? Simplifying that which is complicated is the hardest thing, but it can be incredibly rewarding. Consider the following:

  • What works in my family? Distract from the reasoning behind why something should or should not be effective. Do what works.
  • What is not working? Stop doing things that don't work.

Once you have simplified:

  • Seek out private conversations to ask your loved one about what is going on, OR bring your parents together to get some things out in the open.
  • Consider hiring more help to ease family stress when possible.
  • Conduct a self-care check: Am I getting my needs met while in the context of this stress?

If you are concerned about a parent's emotional well-being within a difficult relationship, or if you find that the stress of caring for your parents is affecting your own health and well-being, seek help from a physician or therapist.  

One of the first things I was told about aging was, "I knew I was old when I became invisible." Helping our aging parents feel listened to and understood allows them to be seen. We must also do the same for ourselves: See and be seen for your own needs as a caregiver.


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