Parenting Children, Caring for Parents: A Job Description.

Larissa Dann

‘Sandwich generation’ refers to people who are bringing up children (typically adolescents) while also caring for their aging parents. At the moment I’m the vegemite in that sandwich, my time and energy thinly spread between my parents, my children, and occasionally my long-suffering partner.

For the past twenty years I’ve primarily thought of myself as a Mum. At times, it seemed like my name had even changed, with no formal application on my part. Instead of being known as ‘Larissa’, more often than not I was addressed as “Ben’s Mum”* or “Phoebe’s Mum”. I was almost at the point of signing documents as “X’s Mother”.

Now, unexpectedly (but how could this be expected?), a large chunk of my time is spent caring for, or being with, my aging and ailing parents. One has cancer, the other had dementia. Ironically I’m now being addressed as “Rod’s daughter” or “Hazel’s daughter”. And, I do get to sign documents as “X’s Daughter”, as a guardian for my parents.

When I can, I try to use the time with my Dad to deepen my knowledge of who he is, and our relationship (my mother,sadly, is unable to participate).  I ask him to reflect from this list of 64 questions, and we go through his thousands of slides.

So, I see myself as a carer of the young, and sometimes, a carer of the older. Much of my time is spent waiting in numerous specialist waiting rooms, gazing at bland cream walls with glossy professional prints, trying not to listen to the whispered conversations at the receptionist desk, ignoring that peculiar antiseptic odour that belongs only to surgeries.

As I sit there next to my parent I find myself fine-tuning my timetable for the day. What do I need to do next? What have I just done? What new appointments must be made? I realise that, as a carer, I have to care for myself, so that I can be there for my family. And as I’m a sciencey type of person, I begin to analyse, and then categorise, my life. I discover that much of what I do now for my parents, I also do, or did, for my children.

In some ways, my role as a daughter of my parents has reversed, and I am taking on aspects of a parenting role – with my own parents.

I begin to classify my days into varying functions. For fun, I write a job description for each position I am undertaking - as the carer of a child, or carer of a parent. What are the duties and skills of each role; the similarities, the differences? To whom am I responsible? I tabulate the results. Pages and pages emerge from my fingertips and onto the screen. I see before me, in black and white, a description of my days as both a carer of a parent, and a carer of a child.

To my surprise, I find that as I make each role tangible, I begin to feel relieved, to feel validated. Any negative feelings (such as resentment), that may have seeped in to undermine my relationship with my parent (or my child, heaven forbid!) is acknowledged, and then released. I realise that each duty or responsibility is only for now, and not forever.

As I think about what I do, I find I value myself, and the roles I am playing. I value the person for whom I am caring. And most importantly, I value the relationship we have together.

I am by no means a perfect candidate for the role of either parent, or carer of parents! They say each mistake is a learning point. Well, I have many, many learning points in my life!

I am fortunate that I love being a parent, and that I am the adult child of much loved, and loving, parents. Your situation may differ in some way or other from mine, but you may still find similarities. Some of you may be grandparents who find themselves caring for their elderly parents, while providing care for their very young grandchildren. Others may have a distant relationship with their parents, or be caring for a child with a disability. Some of you may have no children.

Each of us, though, will have a ‘position description’ that could validate our current roles.

Here’s a sample of my role(s) as I see them - today.

DUTIES and RESPONSIBILITIES.

Your duties and responsibilities may include:

Duties and responsibilities

As a Carer of a Parent

As a Parent of a Child

  1. Valuing your time together.

The ability to appreciate the time you have with your aging parents. The realisation that, once upon a time, you thought they would be there with you, and for you, forever. Now you know that this is not the case. Living in the moment, absorbing their stories, valuing their life lived.

  • Thanking them, telling them how much you love them.

The ability to appreciate the time you spend with your child. Valuing the ‘now’, as every day brings a change as they move towards their adult potential. Suddenly, they can pull their knees up under their chest and crawl. Now they can stand and walk. Tomorrow they will be driving your car. Remember to drink in their toothless baby smile; their trusting hand laid in yours; their letters of love to you; their sobbing pain as their best friend becomes second best for a day; their anxiety tinged excitement as they transition from childcare, to primary school, to high school, to college, to university and to adulthood.

  • Thanking them, telling them how much you love them.
  1. Interpreting

Attend medical appointments with your parent. Interpreting the jargon and advice from the practitioner into a form that your stressed and overwhelmed parent can understand.

Directly interpret the: different types of crying; half-formed words; yelling; silence; stomping; tears; sighs; eye rolls etc., into understandable needs upon which you can act.

3. Advocating; Questioning the Experts

As you interpret, keep in mind the needs of your parent, and your unique understanding of who they are. You will always have the best interests of your parent in mind. Don’t be afraid to question the experts. Sometimes they make mistakes. There is no such thing as a silly question, and do not let an expert bully you into submission. Get a second opinion. Discuss medications with your pharmacist. After all, this is your parent, and their life.

  • If your parent is with you when talking to a professional, ensure that he or she is included in the conversation. Avoid referring to them in the third person.  Encourage medical staff to speak directly to your parent, not about your parent. Direct their attention to your parent, by looking at your parent when the specialist addresses you.  After all, it is your parent's life that is under discussion!

Advocate for your child in places such as schools, childcare centres, medical practices, and the family law courts. Again, you will have a unique understanding of who they are, and will always act in the best interests of your child.

  • If a conversation is about your child and he or she is with you, ensure that they are included in the conversation. Avoid referring to them in the third person.  Encourage experts to speak directly to your child, not about your child. Direct attention over to your child, by looking at them when the expert addresses you.  After all, it is your child's life that is under discussion!
4. Taxi Driving

While they can’t drive, you may act as their taxi driver. Take them to visit their friends, attend their numerous medical appointments, out for coffee so they don’t become housebound or depressed.

  • Recognise the benefit: you get to spend time together to talk and connect.

You may find yourself being taxi driver. To and from everything. Will seem like forever, but will pass in a sneeze. Sporting events; after-school activities; school; social activities; friends; family; shopping; parties; pick-up after parties in the small hours of the night. You know the list.

  • Recognise the benefit: you get to spend time together to talk and connect.
5. Hotel Manager; Housekeeper; Launderer; Caterer; Kennel operator.

In a joint venture with other householders, you may be called on to provide a fully catered experience: two-course meals (because they have to put on weight after wasting away with disease. This may involve enticing your parent to eat – see section on child and reluctant eating); washing; cleaning and household maintenance. You may also be required to provide housing for the beloved pet of your older parent.

You are required to provide healthy food and housing to help bring up healthy children. In addition, you may need to invent unique methods of enticing reluctant eaters to ingest said healthy food, especially coloured foods - green or orange.

6. Case Management

You will need organisational and case management skills. You may find yourself continually assessing the progress of your loved one, and any unmet needs. You may need to liaise with health professionals of several disciplines and organisations, and to follow up appointments promised but not made, or to find results of scans. You may be responsible for ordering medicines, and ensuring Webster pack contents tally with doctor’s recommendations.

As case manager, you may be responsible for organising after school activities, then encouraging attendance at said activities when participant becomes reluctant. This might include the discovery that they can’t play ‘Frozen’ on the piano after just one lesson, or that swimming lessons means someone telling them how to move their arms and legs, and that they need to do what the instructor says.

7. Personal Care

You may be required to provide personal care to the person who once changed your nappies. This should be done in a manner that retains, as much as possible, the dignity of your parent. You may need to feed them; process their food prior to feeding; administer medication; remove their teeth and brush them before replacing in a stubbornly closed mouth; dress them; beautify them with nail polish and make-up; toilet and shower your loved one. Take heart – these jobs become easier once we remember they are people we love and who need our help.

  • This role may require a stomach of iron.

Babies and infants will be reliant on you to look after their every physical and emotional need. The need for this responsibility will reduce in time. Be prepared to look fondly and wisely back at this period when speaking to new parents.

  • This role may require a stomach of iron (and many changes of clothes).
8. Secretary and Personal Assistant

Attending appointments with your parent will be important. You may find it useful to write out questions before you go, in conjunction with your parent. You may then need to take notes throughout the appointment, to which you both can refer after the stress of the appointment. These notes may also be useful if you wish to query any of the advice received, or follow up systemic issues you wish to improve.

Not generally applicable, unless attending medical appointments with your child. Or school interviews.

9. Encourager and Empowerer

You may notice your parents lose their confidence, particularly after a long stay in hospital, or if they lose their physical abilities, or as they begin their descent into dementia. It will be tempting to take over and do everything for them. This duty requires you to imagine yourself in their position. Your parent wants to maintain pride and dignity. It will be important to avoid patronising your parent. Instead, your role will be to discover what they can still do, and encourage their remaining abilities, or discover new abilities.

  • You will require patience and understanding, and will be aided by communication skills such as active listening, and understanding ‘problem ownership’. You will find it useful to understand the difference between praise and acknowledgement.

Encouraging and empowering your children will be essential for their future adult life. Let your baby reach for the distant toy; help your five year old resolve the conflict with her seven year old brother so that both are happy. Empowering your children while helping them maintain compassion for others helps grow responsible, caring adults.

  • You will require patience and understanding, and will be aided by communication skills such as active listening, and understanding ‘problem ownership’. You will find it useful to understand the difference between praise and acknowledgement.
10. Supervisor

You may need to gently, respectfully and non-intrusively ensure that all medication is correct and taken at the right time, in the right amount. Your loved one may also need encouragement to exercise or socialise.

This role requires you to gently, and respectfully, ensure that your child is physically and psychologically safe. At the same time, encourage autonomy and empathy, and avoid becoming a ‘helicopter’ or ‘lawnmower’ parent. (For this you may need a magic wand to wave onto yourself!).

11. Personal trainer

You may need to remind your parents to walk or do their recommended exercises. This may involve a degree of gentle reminders (sometimes referred to as ‘nagging’), or exercising with your parent.

You may need amazing relationship and negotiation skills to encourage your child away from the couch/console/screen, and into the outside world for exercise. Helping them to see why this is important may involve respectful ‘consulting’ skills.

12. Researcher

Beware Dr Google. Find some trusted sites recommended by your doctor or pharmacist on your parent’s particular condition(s). Get to know your local pharmacist, as they will have up-to-date information on medication interactions and potential side effects. Make your pharmacist your friend!

Acknowledge - there is a confusing mess of information out there in Parenting Land. Find books, parenting approaches and pages that agree with today’s evidence. Having a warm relationship is emerging as one constant in the shifting sands of parent advice and research. Appreciate the connection with other parents on social media, such as ‘mummy pages’, but approach the advice with caution.

13. Circus Skills

Not often acknowledged, but circus skills will be necessary to negotiate the aids that materialise in order to help parents live independently. Backing onto a high toilet stool that restricts arm movement requires the flexibility of an elite gymnast!

You may require the balance and strength skills of a circus performer in order to: tip toe around the Lego bricks; wade through knee deep clothes and books; manoeuvre upwards to make a bunk bed; vacuum while breast feeding; clown around making strange faces and even stranger noises in front of an appreciative tiny audience.

14.Transition care

You may need to transition your parent into new accommodation and their next phase of life, such as a nursing home, retirement village or palliative care. This may require tact and listening skills. You may also need to act as a packer, carer and respecter of memories, and removalist.

You may be required to stand alongside your children, to support and encourage them in their many life transitions –through childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood.


SKILLS

The skills for this position may include:

Skills

As a Carer of a Parent

As a Parent

1. Sense of Humour

A sense of humour is obligatory.

  • Ensure that you are laughing with, rather than at, your parent. Live in the moment with them.

Appreciate their humour, the eager interest in the unfolding world of your little ones. Recognise that their sayings, their mispronunciation of words, are worth savouring and storing in our memory vaults. All too soon they will be able to correctly say their cutely mispronounced “hostipal; twarberry”, and they will stop skipping to school and begin to dawdle instead.

  • Ensure that you are laughing with, rather than at, your child. Live in the moment with them.
2. Patience, self-control, understanding and empathy.

Patience will be an important aspect of this job. Patience is part of understanding and empathy. For example: walking very slowly with your parent; repeating the same sentence several times in a row; explaining medications; and not taking slights against you personally (understanding that this is a result of the disease, not the person). Recognising that your parent is a person who needs your respect.

  • At the same time, understand that sometimes, they just can’t be told, and are still coming to grips with the limitations of their abilities. At this point, listen with empathy.

Patience and self-control will be necessary for many, many situations in this role. For example: not swearing after stepping on that Lego brick; understanding that sometimes your sobbing child can’t calm themselves (their brain is still developing); recognising that the blue cup (that used to be the favourite) has been thrown with disgust on the floor because now it’s not yellow; understanding that sometimes you are the first thing they want to see in the mornings, and sometimes you aren’t, and that this is impossible to predict. Recognise that your child is a person who needs your respect.

  • At the same time, understand that sometimes, they just can’t be told, and are still coming to grips with the limitations of their abilities. At this point, listen with empathy.
3. Communication, counselling and conflict resolution skills

Respectful communication skills will be of immense importance in this role. In particular, you will find the skill of listening essential. If your parent has dementia, listening to their feelings and validating them can calm them immensely. Using I-Messages and conflict resolution will help you remain respectful, and help both you and your parent retain respect for yourselves. Although you are tempted (because you are frustrated), avoid reward and punishment. This is demeaning and ineffective, and will only serve to lower your parent’s confidence.

Respectful communication skills will be of immense importance in this role. What you say and how you say it may have life-long outcomes for your children, as they learn social and relational skills. Try to avoid rewards and punishment (including time-out), and instead teach children no-lose conflict resolution skills. This will set them up for life. Be prepared to hear your words come out of your children’s mouths, and to learn from your children’s wisdom.

4. Ability to maintain your own mental and physical health; You are Human.

Probably the most important skill. Remember the airline safety spiel? “You must give yourself oxygen first so you can care for others”. Remember to exercise, eat healthy food, and try to find some time for yourself. You are doing the best you can, in sometimes trying circumstances. Acknowledge your efforts. Find ‘your tribe’ – seek support from people who understand, perhaps a support group or education group, or counselling. And at the end of each day, try writing down three things for which you are grateful.

 


My reflection.

This time in my life is not permanent. I am grateful that I am in a position to provide this care. I know that one day, my parents will no longer be here to love, to hold their hands, to have those meaningful discussions. I know that one day, my children will move away to their own lives, and I will no longer hear their daily chatter, or feel their tiny soft hands sneak into mine as we walk.

One day, there will be time and reason to grieve. But today is not that day.

Reference:

Looking after a dying loved one at home? Here’s what you need to know. 

* All names have been changed, except mine!

First published 22 February 2016, updated 1 November 2017.          Image with permission Shutterstock

© Larissa Dann. 2016, 2017.  All rights reserved

Comments

I really liked reading the job description for caring for parents and parenting children. The lists recognise the responsibilities we have and skills we try to master to do the job well. Thanks for reminding me about the circus skills - be agile, balance the loads and smile even when things are crazy! Well done Larissa.

Thank you Deirdre. I really love your take on circus skills. I think you've encapsulated the meaning of the story in one sentence! Beautiful.

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