When I was growing up, I idolized my parents. They were the smartest people in the world. I could trust them with anything. I knew they’d have an answer for every question. They were superheroes.
As I began to shape my adult life, they became more human. It started with minor health problems. Then a few political disagreements. At some point in my 20s, it was as if I passed my parents on an escalator — I was headed up as they headed down. Suddenly I found myself looking behind me, yelling at them to make sure they asked the doctors the right questions, to check in on their news sources, to make sure they were eating well.
This is the inevitable march of life: we grow up, and our parents grow old.
It is very disorienting to meet the moment when you realize you are “parenting” your parents. It feels unnatural, and perhaps a little obscene. These are the people who raised me! How dare I tell them anything about how to live! And yet it is one of the most natural parts of living: our parents care for us, and eventually, we care for our parents.
As we wade into this new season of our lives, here are a few approaches that have kept me rooted and generous.
Let go of control
I’ve moved a number of times across the United States, and my dad has frequently been there to load and unload the U-Haul. During a recent move, I began to worry that he was physically carrying too much. I started trying to take the heavier things up the stairs. He’s a healthy man in his 70s who runs with the dog every day and eats well, but I had absentmindedly assumed I was stronger.
There will be a moment in the future when this is true. He will slow down or have an accident. I wish I could pinpoint the moment this will happen (hopefully long in the future) so that I’ll be able to swoop in and help him. But I don’t know when that will be. No one knows. It’s in the hands of God, my dad, and the doctors I trust to care for my dad.
Acknowledge and allow shifting viewpoints
There are certain things on which my family always agrees, like Catholicism and baseball. But the way our common values play out, especially when it comes to politics, aren’t always in sync. Part of maturing into peership with my parents was realizing that the roots for their beliefs and convictions run just as deep as mine.
When you disagree with your parents on things that feel crucial, you have to make space for the validity of their lived experiences as much as you may ask they make space for yours. I consider my dad as well-read and reasonable as I am — because he taught me to read and reason! So when we disagree on major points, I always ask him to share what he’s reading, whom he’s talking to, and how his opinions are being formed. And he always, always ends a heated discussion with a big hug, reminding me that our shared passion for justice is good for the world.
Most importantly, we know when to make space for these conversations. We need a good amount of time if we’re going to discuss something we both care about deeply — no drive-by comments or unfinished conversations.
Any tension that might emerge between you and your parents is the result of you becoming the person they raised you to be. When my mom and I would discuss the more delicate aspects of managing money, raising children, or the events of the day, I delighted in reminding her that my beliefs were, ultimately, her fault. She’s the one who raised, in her words, a curious, committed, passionate Catholic.
Keep family and friends in the loop
At Thanksgiving this year, I texted my dad and brother about their plans for the day. While my brother was visiting his fiance’s family in another state, my dad said he picked up some good food and was going to eat it on the couch.
I immediately called Dad: “You mean you’re… not going anywhere? Not sharing the meal with anyone?”
Turns out he hadn’t been invited to a Thanksgiving, and didn’t want to bother anyone by pointing it out. My mom passed away recently, and all the usual suspects in our hometown were elsewhere for the week. So my dad bought himself mashed potatoes.
I emailed and texted everyone I could think of in town. Fifteen minutes later, he told me he had to go put on a nice shirt because a family from church had just invited him over. Thanksgiving is meaningful for many reasons, but what would have happened if my dad had a physical issue while my brother was out of town? That’s when I learned I need to make my circle of communication wider, and make sure I’m in touch with friends who see my dad more often.
If you don’t live near your parents, it might be time to acquaint yourself with their circle of friendships. Get the phone numbers of their neighbors. Find out who their doctor and pharmacist are. These are things no one tells us to do until it’s necessary, but having that info before it’s needed will make the moment it is needed far easier to navigate.
Trust the people who raised you, and the siblings you grew up with
My dad might be a stubborn ex-Navy attack pilot, but he’s no fool. If he needs real help, he will find it. Part of my job living in Germany is trusting that the man who raised me knows his limits and his needs, and will be able to communicate them. My brother and I bear responsibility for his long-term health and care, but we do that as a team with my dad.
If you have siblings, now might be the time to check in with them about who can get to your parents in an emergency. Even if it seems like a long way off, beginning the conversation will make the future so much easier to handle. Your family is a team — parents and siblings and children.
Don’t be afraid of talking about the end of life
One of the many downsides of our cultural obsession with youth is that we are not conditioned to talk about and adequately prepare for what happens at the end of life. If your parents have a retirement plan, you may assume they’ve got things covered. But as they get older, your presence in decision-making and care will become more and more essential. Start the conversation now while they can be full participants. Even if it feels scary, being honest about the future is a way of loving them, and responding to their love for you.
These discussions aren’t just about physical care. Take time to collect your parents’ stories. Even if it feels forced, make them talk about their childhoods, and record it. Whether you write it down or make voice clips, I really suggest getting as much of their take on life and living as you can, while you can. When my mom passed away, she took with her the entire history of her Polish family coming to America in the 1900s, her mother’s career as a vaudeville dancer, and her father’s career as an orchestra conductor. I know many of the stories, but she knew the narrative. Those are the pieces of your parents you have to grab before you know you’re losing them.
In the end, all we have is love — and that’s all we need
The guiding force in all of this is love. We care for our parents because we are called to love them — even in the moments when we might not like them, or find their actions frustrating. But ultimately, being a peer to your parents is a gift, and an opportunity to explore new facets of the relationship.