Tweener: a person or thing considered to be between two other recognized categories or types.
Tween: Caring for aging parents. Caught in between.
When Sylvia and Dan’s youngest child started high school, they started thinking about the next chapter of their lives. Visions of freedom and faraway places danced in their heads. Soon enough, they’d be empty-nesters, free to travel and reconnect with each other as they moved into mid-life.
What they didn’t envision was having to take care of an elderly parent. Sure they expected to be there in a support role but becoming primary caretakers was not even on the radar. But life had other plans. One day, mom was feisty and independent, doing just fine. The next, she needed help with even the most basic daily tasks. Dan and Sylvia found themselves taking on more and more of her care. And their own plans were now on hold.
Dan and Sylvia’s experience is part of a growing trend among those of us in our 50’s. More and more mature couples are finding themselves both parenting minor children and caring for aging parents. They are the new “Tweens” of their generation.
Caring for children and parents is nothing new. In fact, in some cultures, it is expected. What’s different now is that the dynamics are changing. This phenomenon is becoming much more common than in previous generations and for some very practical reasons:
- Couples are having children later which means it is not unusual for 50-somethings to still have minor children at home
- People are living longer. The average life expectancy is well into the 80’s
- For some, consolidating families is financially necessary when the cost of maintaining separate households or in-home care is prohibitive
What does this mean for couples at midlife? It means dual roles. They have to parent their children while simultaneously caring for their parents. They move between “parent” and “adult child” which can be incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing. Sometimes, that line can become blurred and you end up stuck in the middle and parenting everybody.
The Challenges of Tweens
Caring for aging parents can be especially tricky. In some ways, you, the adult child, must take on a “parental” role, providing guidance but also sometimes requiring you to enforce boundaries and limits when your parent is unable to do so. This dynamic can be uncomfortable and awkward, challenging everything you probably learned about respecting your elders. You are now the adult child parenting your parent.
Mom or Dad may struggle mightily with this shift in family dynamics as well. All of a sudden, the child they raised is telling them what to do! This shift can set the stage for conflict, confusion and lots of hurt feelings.
The most important thing to remember is that parenting your children is vastly different than caring for an elderly parent. Yes, you will sometimes need to make decisions for them. However, your parent is not a child. Caring for and assisting them can and should respect that difference.
Your children may struggle as well. They expect your attention and participation in their lives. They need that quality parent-child time that is so essential to healthy emotional growth and development. Yes, they like spending time with grandparents too but they also want those 1:1 times with you. For a parent and a caretaker, the internal tug-of-war that develops can be quite overwhelming.
If you find yourself in this situation, here’s the good news: there are things you can do to manage the many hats you’re now wearing.
The key is balance – learning to care for your loved ones while still caring for YOU.
Caring for a loved one does NOT mean that you have to give up your life, your hopes or your dreams. Now, you may have to redefine a few things or find some workarounds much the same as you did when you became a parent. You can still have a fulfilling, joyful life even in times of stress.
Bring the whole family together and talk about the decision to care for mom or dad. Talk about solutions. What the “set up” will look like. What changes? And what stays the same?
The more information you can all share, the more smoothly the transition can be. Your kids especially are likely to struggle to understand what’s about to happen. They are used to being your priority. Help them to understand that that does not change. When kids feel secure, it is much easier for them to adapt to changes knowing mom and dad have the situation under control.
Listen to Understand
This decision will affect everyone. While the decision may not be ideal, it may be necessary. Be open to listening to each other and trying to understand what their feelings and fears might be.
When people feel heard and feel safe in the decision, they are more likely to handle the changes well. Remember, your kids (and your mom or dad) didn’t ask for this situation. Hear them. And don’t forget to express yourself too. Every feeling matters.
The lines of multiple roles can quickly become blurred. Next thing you know, you’re parenting everybody…literally.
Especially with Mom or Dad, it can be easy to slip into “parent mode” with them, especially as their dependency increases. Be mindful of how you speak to them and treat them. Allow them to do for themselves when they can – even if it would be faster and easier for you to do it for them. They need to feel self-sufficient as long as possible.
Reach Out For Help
Being a parent is hard enough on a good day. Add in the extra responsibilities of caring for an elderly parent and you can be over your head in no time. The hard truth is that no one – not even you – can do it all alone. You are going to need help now and then.
Let your family or friends lend a hand. Sometimes others don’t know that you’re struggling. Ask for help if you need it.
Make Time for Your Children
With all of the added responsibilities, it can be hard to carve out time with your kids. These are their formative years and, even though they may be teens, they still need that 1:1 quality time with you. Plan an activity with them. Make sure you’re checking in with them and maintaining a guiding hand.
Kids are usually quite tolerant and understanding of complex family situations when they feel supported and valued. It allows them to relax and let the grownups handle the grown-up business.
Make Time for Your Parent(s)
Caring for their needs is only a small piece of the experience. It can be easy to overlook spending the quality time that is so important to relationships.
As sad as it is to consider, your time with them is limited. Have those chats. Ask the questions about their lives, their experiences. Make the memories.
Make Time for Your Partner
It can be easy to get so entrenched in the day-to-day routine of kids and parents that relationships can suffer. It’s OK and it is necessary to make time for your partner. Your partner can be one of your greatest supports through these complicated family changes. Having a stable, loving relationship can be a source of comfort and strength.
As hard as it might be to imagine, a day will come when it will be just the two of you again. Will you still know each other? Making time for each other helps to keep you connected and united.
Make Time for You
This tip is usually the hardest one of all. Somewhere along the way, we get the message that everyone else has to come first, that our needs can wait, that they are somehow “less than” the needs of others. Sure, there are times when a loved one has to be the priority. Routinely, though, everything doesn’t have to happen right-this-minute.
The illusion is that if we are “busy” and “doing” then we are OK and our loved ones are OK. The fact is, the more we “do” without recovering/resting, the less effective we become. We all have our limits. We all need to rest and recharge. If you are burned out, tired and stressed, you are not at your best or giving your loved ones your best.
You are now juggling multiple roles. That’s hard at any age but at midlife, adequate recovery is part of maintaining your physical and emotional health. You need to take time to rest.
- Ask a trusted friend or loved one to sit with mom or dad
- Get a professional sitter for the day if it’s in the budget
- Get a mani/pedi or a massage
- Make it a point to take a walk every day
Do something that is healing and rejuvenating for you. Your body will thank you. Your mind with thank you. Your loved ones will thank you.
Every family is different in the challenges it will face. If you find yourself struggling, there is help. Reach out to a family therapist. They are trained in family dynamics and can help you sort it out in a healthy way. Reach out to your local elder services for resources and support.
If you take away nothing else, please take this: there is no shame in asking for help.
So what happened with Sylvia and Dan? After lots of stumbles and victories and tears and laughter, they embraced their family in all its love and chaos. They loved their kids and they lovingly cared for their elderly parents with no regrets. They even managed to have a few adventures and realize a few dreams along the way. And, most important of all, they emerged strong and fulfilled and thankful for the time they had with their loved ones. At last check, they were headed to New Zealand on a bucket list trip.
(**Names are fictitious)
Dr. Dawn Ferrara has over twenty years of clinical experience in the mental health field. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist as well as a Certified Health Coach. Dr. Ferrara is passionate about helping her clients find solutions that work and believes that every person has the power and ability to be successful. When not working, she can usually be found in the gym or spending time with her husband and their silly Black Lab, Riley, enjoying the sights and sounds of South Louisiana.