The Difference between Parenting and Caregiving

The Difference between Parenting and Caregiving (Caregiven Collabo)

Originally appeared on the Caregiven Blog

Despite my boasts of vast improvements in emotional intelligence and mindful communication, I recently snapped back at Candice, CEO at Caregiven in response to her comments about stepping into a “parental role” in this post: https://caregiven.co/remain-true-to-yourself/

(Admittedly, I didn’t even finish it before I hit reply so I could let her know how I felt. Yah. Real mature, Rachel)

Candice welcomed my perspective and asked me to share my thoughts on this hot button issue.

When someone says they are “parenting” their parents, my heart breaks a little. I try to forgive them, for “they know not what they do.” It is simply human nature to try to find language that make sense of what is happening in our lives.

As a person who has cared for more than my fair share of adults, I can tell you that caregiving is not the same as parenting.

Certainly parents and caregivers have a lot in common. While parents and caregivers share many of the same goals, their chief aim is fundamentally different. The objective of parents is to successfully launch their children into adult life. As caregivers, we are often there to embrace our elders at the end of their journey.

Even though both of these roles in the family cycle are equally important, the attitudes, skills, and approaches needed for this stage of life do not look the same.

The Difference between Parenting and Caregiving

Life Cycles

It should be glaringly obvious that children and elders are on opposite sides of the life trajectory. That alone should destroy the falsehood that we are parenting our parents. The fact remains that caring for children and caring for adults is different simply because of where they are in the life cycle.

Children are on the upward path to adulthood. We watch with bated breath as they take their steps to each  developmental milestone. First steps. First words. First day of school. Graduation. It is a time of growth.

When someone becomes a caregiver, it normally marks the beginning of their downward descent. It is the end, a stage of decline.

Life Experiences

Yes, you have to be careful when physically handling children and older adults and sometimes they share similar needs when it comes to daily care. Yes, you have to be strategic in your communications with both age groups. However:

  • You shouldn’t get in the space of a grown person the same way you do with a child.
  • You shouldn’t talk to a grown person the same way you talk to a child.
  • You shouldn’t tell a grown person what to do like you would a child.

We level with people differently based on where they are in their life course, navigating individual complexities of interactions, relationships, and events.

Our past experiences make us or break us. If we learn early in life that people aren’t safe and can’t be trusted, we behave much differently with others. Conversely, if we have positive connections with others, we are much more open to trusting and caring relationships. Parents work tirelessly to foster those positive connections and protect against all potential threats. With that in mind, it requires a completely different approach to support someone who is dealing with chronic illness or near the end of life. As caregivers, we are often charged with this same responsibility while, at the same time, responding to and fostering healing from past life experiences.

My friend Calvin was deaf and blind. Old enough to be my father. For a decade, I walked with him through the end of his journey. That entire time, people were always comparing him to a child. Never considering once after 40 almost 50 some odd years he might have some context about the world. A lot of people never gave Calvin any credit. They never believed he could make choices or knew what was going on. Imagine a lifetime of experiences like that.

From the get go, because he was so much older than me, I knew that Calvin deserved the utmost respect. It always upset me that they talked about him as if he was an infant because he didn’t fit the mold of how we think adults are expected to behave. Even though Calvin couldn’t communicate in the same way a lot of us do, he could still tell us how he felt and what he wanted. As a person who was completely reliant on others, he had to learn how to tell when he could trust someone, and when someone wasn’t going to be so helpful. He had to learn to tolerate being misunderstood and accept others perceptions of what was important to and important for him.

As Calvin’s sidekick, I had to learn how to respond to a lifetime of trauma and disrespect with kindness and compassion. Caring for Calvin changed my perception of caregiving big time.

Through my experience with Calvin and countless others, I’ve learned that our elders’ lifetime of experiences are a unique tapestry, woven with strong preferences and lifelong habits. As parents, the mission is to nurture these. As caregivers, it is our responsibility to honor these.

Relationship Dynamics

As children, we rely on our parents to survive. After all, they have more knowledge and experience than we do. We both admire and fear them.

Why should it be any different when someone is in need of support? Why is that when our family members need our help, all of a sudden, they become like children? Why is it that all of their life experiences become irrelevant, and we begin to focus only on what they are unable to do?

Children rely on us because of a lack of knowledge about how the world works. Our elders rely on us, too, but it is not the same. Across cultures and belief systems, we are commanded to respect our elders. You cannot “parent” someone you are supposed to revere.

Saying that you are parenting your parents assumes that you are superior in the relationship, while care during chronic illness or at the end of life is (or should be) partnership.

The term “care partners” has emerged in response to this conversation we’re having right now. It is another hot button issue in the world of aging and caregiving. We’ll debate that another day, but the gist of it is this: both the care recipient and the caregiver share equal responsibility each other’s care and quality of life.

Emotional Ties

Saying we are parenting our elders trivializes the emotional nature of caregiving. Parenthood is a time of hope eternal and new beginnings. When an elder is in need of care, it is a usually a sign of impending doom.

Of course it is important to always maintain a positive attitude in life, but the emotions that are tied to these unique family roles are quite different.

Think about it. Generally, when we talk about becoming a parent, we have a positive reaction. We are filled with hope. Our vision of the future is bright and we’re filled with dreams of what could be possible for our babies. They offer classes on the important aspects of taking care of young children. People throw us parties and do their best to make sure we have everything we need for a strong start. People have all kinds of tips and advice and make sure we know what we need to do to be good parents.

As caregivers, our entry into the world of caregiving is pretty much the exact opposite. Nobody throws us a party. Even though it’s something a lot of people go through, people don’t want to talk about it. Nobody ever seems to have any answers. It is often something we are expected to do, without any formal training or education. And the future is definitely not bright.

Instead of the hope and cheer of new life and a blank canvas, we are faced with the feeling of a very certain end. Filled with grief and fear, we must carry out our roles knowing we are walking into a loss.

Strategic Caring

When we are responsible for children or adults, we have a checklist of things we must address to make sure our loved ones are healthy and safe. However, our strategies for caring for them are different based on where they are in the life cycle.

As parents, the priority is making sure that children have the proper care to grow and develop into healthy, well-rounded adults. Our approach is preventative and proactive. When children are sick or hurt, we do everything we can to save them and increase their odds of survival.

As people who care for our elders, our approach is often much more palliative in nature. Palliative care is focused on providing relief from the symptoms and stress. We are much less aggressive when we encounter illness and injury. Instead of treating people and trying to prolong their lives, the emphasis is on comfortably letting them go.

If we walk (or are thrust) into a role with the impression that we need X skill set, when we really need Y, we are going to be seriously unprepared. Instead of perpetuating this false simile, we should we work to give everyone realistic expectations on what it takes to become a caregiver. This way they can gain the values, skills, and information needed to be successful in this role–– before, during, and after.

In Conclusion

Comparing parenting and caregiving is not only an inaccuracy, it’s disrespectful. It is a slap in the face to those who are simultaneously caring, commonly known as “the sandwiched generation.” This robs them of the honor and value they should have carrying the caregiving title. They are balancing two critically important societal roles, and they deserve all the credit.

Most importantly, though, by likening our elders to children, we are robbing them of the respect they deserve. No matter their physical state or mental status, they are still adults with a lifetime of experiences. I said it before and I’ll say it again: if nothing else, your measly existence on this planet wouldn’t be possible without them. We need to stop treating and referring to our elders in this manner, and instead focus on valuing and reinforcing their gifts and contributions to our lives and society. It is about dignity.

I think Judy Cornish, author of The Dawn Method and Dementia with Dignity put it best when she said,

“It’s an approach shaped by the knowledge that those who age before us are entering elderhood, not failing at adulthood; that they have arrived at a time meant for sharing wisdom and companionship, rather than accumulating skills and assets; and that they have reached life’s final chapter—one that should be rich with being rather than the demands of doing and having.”
― from “Dementia With Dignity: Living Well with Alzheimer’s or Dementia Using the DAWN Method®”

Today, I challenge you to start thinking differently about what it means to have a caring relationship with your elders.