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March Mania

Aging parents, no matter challenges, never become children

Carol Bradley Bursack, Forum columnist Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Dear Carol: I have several friends who are caring for their parents in various ways. They talk as if their parents have become the family children and it upsets me.

My parents are living in their home and doing well. We've been planning for the future with the necessary legal documents, and I know that they'd like to stay in their home as long as possible but if a move is necessary, they will do it.

I respect them now and am troubled by the thought that I may slide into treating them like children when they do need help. Is this a default attitude for adult child caregivers? — SB

Dear SB: With your attitude, I can almost guarantee that you'll make an exceptional caregiver who will understand that your parents will continue to deserve your respect as adults no matter what happens to their health.

In answer to your question about this attitude becoming the default, I'd say that I don't think so, but it is more common than it should be. As a columnist, I hear from frustrated caregivers who are in legitimate distress but seem to be contributing to some of their problems with their parents for this exact reason. They talk about their parents acting like babies which to me indicates that the caregiver may be reaching a stage of extreme frustration or burnout. I often suggest that it may be time for some kind of outside help so that they can have a break.

I am well aware that some diseases, particularly cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's and other types of dementia, can cause people to lose many abilities including those of making sound decisions, having bowel and bladder control, and even feeding themselves. These are all terrible losses for them and difficult issues for their adult children to accept.

My insistence that elders don't become children because of these losses doesn't diminish my understanding and respect for adult children who must cope with these changes. I've been there — several times.

What needs to be considered, however, is that everyone's parents have a lifetime behind them. To deny them the recognition of this truth simply because their memory is getting slower, or even if they show poor judgment, destroys their dignity. This loss of dignity can encourage difficult behavior.

Caregivers may feel that they are successfully hiding their attitude, but it's likely that it comes out in some manner and their parents will rightfully resent it.

Respecting your elders' dignity requires remembering your parents' place in the family regardless of diminished abilities. It means offering choices, even if that choice is just between which of two shirts to wear or which beverage to drink. It means that caregivers must try to see things from their parent's view and remember that one day they may be facing these same challenges.

When your own parents need some assistance, SB, I'm certain that you'll treat them with respect. Thanks for bringing up this important topic.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at She can be reached at