• Laurie Bell

The Roles, They Are a Changin'


Are you struggling right now with boundary issues?  Are you chafing about being there for your parents but not wanting to interfere?  You definitely don’t want to rock any boats and possibly usurp their parental roles.

I remember being with my Mom after one of her operations and Mom introducing me to her ICU nurse as her Mother instead of as her Daughter.  I was definitely in care-giver mode at the time and Mom was struggling to awaken from anesthetic.  My Mom suffered with Parkinson’s and while she experienced mild dementia near the end of her life, her mind was still pretty sharp at the time when she confused me with my late Grandma.  I was caring for her at the time though and for Mom in her temporarily groggy state, that meant that I must be the parent and that she must be the child…

Mom and I were close and, compared to friends’ struggles with their parents, we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.  We usually shared our triumphs, our secrets and our fears with each other daily and I am really grateful to have experienced our mutually supportive relationship.  I know that it grounded me, demonstrated to me unconditional love and helped me to gain the confidence that I needed to eventually be able to lead and inspire others. 

What happens though when a mother/daughter relationship is fraught with tension and criticism?  What happens when an aging parent cannot or will not accept that their adult child is a functioning, contributing and valued member of society?  What happens when a parent refuses to see their son or daughter as anyone other than the awkward child that they might remember (or imagine) from thirty or forty years ago?

You are presumably middle aged yourself.  Think about your own children if you have any.  Would they be in a position to make decisions on your behalf if something unexpected happened?  If you have more than one child, would they be likely to agree on a course of action that would be right for you?  Do you feel uneasy at the thought? You’re not alone.

Unfortunately, I am not describing an unrealistic situation here.  Parents sometimes have unwittingly even contributed to conflict between their children and yet profoundly insist that they will always be capable of making their own decisions.  They might isolate themselves or align with one individual family member or spouse who they believe can be readily influenced.  In that case it becomes even more difficult for a caring and responsible adult child to express concerns or instigate any kind of meaningful discussion around change.  It just seems to be too difficult a subject to tackle without outside assistance.

Sometimes this instigates a cycle of worry and one that is often only relieved during a health care crisis.  Here, parent and adult child roles can switch rapidly when decisions urgently need to be made. 

As I advise my clients, it is so much better to be able to make your own choices and not have to rely on others to make the same decisions that you would.  Your family members may, like you, have the best of intentions, but they just might have different values than you do and may not have all the information available to make fully informed decisions on your behalf.

Please let your feelings and wishes be known to your family members and that includes your hopes and fears about the future.  None of us knows when a health care crisis may occur. While everyone may not agree on the best course of action, it is likely that the people in your family will want to honour your wishes if they can.  If you don’t share those wishes with anyone, how will they know what you would want done? 

One way to get your folks thinking about this is to let them know what you would prefer for yourself.  While there may, in fact, be heated discussions, you can always choose to agree to disagree.  At least you and your siblings are less likely to find yourselves in a situation where you are only guessing what Mom or Dad might want.

You know your own family dynamics better than anyone.  If an objective perspective can help to advise, advocate on your parents’ behalf, prevent and/or mediate potential disputes, be aware that these services are available and are surprisingly affordable. My own background in prevention, mental health support, crisis intervention and dispute resolution may be helpful in your situation.

And finally, please don’t find yourself restricted by any self-imposed or outdated family roles.  The roles, they are a changin’ and that could be an amazingly freeing development for everyone involved.



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