An old woman leans her head towards her adult daughter. Credit: Shutterstock

“I wanted to step up, but I didn’t get it right” – how to parent a parent when the time comes

As new research shows that almost six million of us worry about how we’ll care for older relatives while also juggling our own lives, Mel Hunter reflects on her experience of caring for her father, and shares the strategies that would have helped.

It was during my father’s last Christmas that I felt most helpless.  

Largely wheelchair-bound by then, my robust, jokey dad, Roger, who had lived life so colourfully, had been hollowed out by more than a decade of Parkinson’s. After a long stay in hospital due to complications following an operation, he needed help day and night. 

I wanted to step up, do more, but I didn’t get it right. Instead, I watched my stoic, proud mum start to struggle and got angry with her when she refused help, from me or anyone else. 

I felt out of my depth and wrong-footed by the changing child/parent relationship, sad to see my dad’s decline and unsure whether to muscle in and impose the help I felt was necessary, or to step back and leave them to battle on. 

Like so many in my situation, I also wasn’t awash with time and energy. I have two children, one with special needs, as well as a busy job and a husband who works and commutes long hours. It would have been unrealistic, unattainable and unfair to have made promises to my parents, who lived almost two hours away, that I would struggle to keep. But I felt guilty about that, too. 

Mel Hunter next to her dad on her wedding dayCredit: Mel Hunter
Mel with her dad, Roger, on Mel’s wedding day

A few months after that Christmas, I did finally get them to agree that I would stay with dad for a day each fortnight to allow my mother a break. But days after I’d noted the dates in my diary, Dad died, aged 73. Seven years on, I still wish I could have done more. 

Fears for the future

But I also know now that I wasn’t alone in my feelings of inadequacy and helplessness. Research from Age UK for its Know What to Do campaign shows 6.6 million people aged 40 to 60, who are considering caring for an older parent in the future, worry they wouldn’t know how to support them. 

Three-quarters of those people say they would find it stressful, and three-fifths say they would struggle to manage financially. 

One of the greatest concerns, for seven in 10 of them, is how they would juggle looking after their parent with the other demands they already have in their life, such as their job and children.  

Yet with people living longer, greater pressure on the NHS and the cost-of-living crisis, the responsibility is increasingly falling on adult children. Regardless of how daunting the task appears, millions are having to step into a role they feel unprepared for. 

Julie, 59, from West Sussex, who looks after her mum, Brenda, who is 87 and has dementia, has been “just getting on with it” for the past three years. Julie works full-time in a London bank but manages to call her mum at least twice a day. She arranges her hospital appointments, sorts out transport to get her there, and makes sure her mum has eaten properly, turned the cooker off and remembered to take her medication. 

I felt out of my depth and wrong-footed by the changing child/parent relationship

She says: “I’m always nervous of my phone ringing just in case something’s wrong.” 

Julie used to visit Brenda, who lives 50 miles away, once a week to do her housework, gardening and sort out her bills, until that arrangement began to take its toll. 

“I wasn’t seeing my husband and I felt guilty going to Mum’s every weekend after working all week. I couldn’t relax and couldn’t get my own housework done, so now I go every fortnight unless she needs me in between. Even then it’s hard. I’m rushing around doing so much for her that I don’t get the chance to do what we both really want, which is to sit down and chat together.” 

Taking up offers of help has eased Julie’s load. She’s grateful that her friend does her mum’s shopping every week and that Brenda enjoys a weekly call with a volunteer from Age UK’s Telephone Friendship Service. 

Julie and her mum Brenda stand in front of the seaCredit: Age UK
Julie and Brenda on holiday, in happier times

Julie likes being able to support her mum, and being realistic about the time she can give has helped, but she says it can still be challenging to balance everything. She also worries about her mum’s dementia worsening and what will happen if she is unable to live independently any more. 

Julie says: “You’re not taught how to look after a parent as they get older – it’s something you feel you just need to learn on your own. I’m worrying about my own life and work, whilst also worrying about my mum.” 

Striking a balance

Lesley Carter, clinical lead for health influencing at Age UK, says it’s normal to feel daunted when the child/parent roles are reversed. 

“It’s very different from parenting a child. They have their whole life to look forward to and they learn more as they go along, but when you look after your parent, that feels back to front, and there can be levels of sadness, despair and denial.” 

She adds that there can be a fine line between caring and control. “Control is telling a parent what to do, while caring is about negotiation and clear communication. It’s about respecting your parents and walking in their shoes. It’s hard for them too.” 

She says that when frustration or resentment sets in, that is when a child might find themselves trying to control the situation. She gives the example of deciding when the time has come for a parent to stop driving. “Instead of getting to the point where you snatch their keys away, you want to have had ongoing conversations which will hopefully lead them to make that decision themselves.” 

Whether it’s a discussion about driving or later life care, it’s a conversation that needs to be started, ideally before you find yourself in a crisis. Lesley says: Once you begin to talk about these things, you open the door and can then revisit them, making a little more progress each time.” 

How to “futureproof” your parents

So how do you start the conversation, if the parent doesn’t broach it themselves or if they are resistant to your help, as my mum was? 

Jackie Cleveland, founder of Podplan, a subscription service that guides families through the maze of elder care, suggests a strategy of ‘’it’s not you, it’s me”. 

“You need to know from your parent what they would want to happen in a worst-case scenario. If you tell them you’re worrying, that it’s keeping you awake at night, then they’re more likely to come to the table.”  

Jackie continues: “If something small happens, like a minor accident or slight fall, you could use that as an impetus to talk about what you should do if something much worse occurs. 

“Another approach is starting a conversation based on something you’ve both seen in the news. You can ask them, ‘If we found ourselves in that situation, what would you want to happen?’” 

Of course, as I know from experience, there are many baby boomers who skilfully bat away any discussions about their future care – too proud or stoic to accept help. 

“You can still do your research in a similar way to if you had your parent on board,” says Jackie. “As a starting point, understand the different types of care providers, how much they cost and how to choose between them. Write down what you find out.” 

It also important to recognise how much – or how little – you can do yourself, whether in terms of the time you have available, the money you have at your disposal or the living arrangements you can offer. Overpromising could be detrimental to your own mental health and relationships, so it is important to set boundaries. 

Alongside the stress, guilt and potential for resentment, these latter years can bring tremendous rewards. Caring can bring a different kind of closeness and understanding. 

For Julie, taking her mum out for occasional afternoon teas has given her memories she will treasure. She also takes pleasure in looking after her mum’s garden, which is still a source of real pride for Brenda. “It’s rewarding for me, and I know she appreciates it.” 

As Carter from Age UK says: “It can be difficult to navigate caring for your parent, but there is a lot of help available if you look for it. Just do what you can – feel good about what you can do and try not to feel guilty about what you can’t do. Keep your parent’s feelings in mind throughout. In the longer term, you’ll find real comfort in knowing you did that best that you could.” 

Practical advice for “parenting a parent”

Instead, provide your parent with the information they need to make an informed decision, which you can then help them execute.

Discuss with your parent how they would want the costs of their care to be met so there are no nasty surprises.

Use the benefit checker at Turn2us.org.uk. For example, Pension Credit, for those on low incomes, is under-claimed. 

This is particularly important with medical professionals, as continuity of care can be challenging. Pin down doctors, take notes and ask questions. 

Include everything from where their will is to who provides their insurance. If they have to go into hospital, they don’t want to worry about renewing their car cover.

Thanks to the internet, wherever you are in the world, everyone can share administrative responsibilities or research.

Age UK’s Telephone Friendship Service offers those who are feeling lonely regular friendly chats. 

Carers UK’s weekly Care for a Cuppa online meetups give you a chance to connect with others.

If you are feeling lost, overwhelmed or just want to know how best to help your parent, Age UK’s advice line is 0800 169 65 65 or visit ageuk.org.uk.

Mel Hunter

Written by Mel Hunter

Published:

Mel is a freelance journalist who has been writing for national publications for 20 years. She has written for The Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, as well as magazines including Good Housekeeping, Prima, Red and Woman & Home.

Mel loves the variety of her work. One day she will be fighting for a reader’s consumer rights, the next interviewing a renowned author. Through her writing, she encourages others to squeeze more out of life, whether that’s making their money go further or striving for something outside their comfort zone. She loves telling the inspiring stories of those who have done just that.

A keen runner, she also has a successful sideline as a cook, cleaner and taxi service to her two children, and switches off in the company of a good book or great friends.

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