Why Now Is a Watershed Moment of Realizing We’re Going to Be Caretakers for Our Parents

Photo: Getty Images/MoMo Productions
In normal circumstances, I never worry about my mom. She's 65 years old, and so healthy that her doctor told her to start coming in for physicals every other year. Her secret? Balance. (Specifically, she's not a huge fan of sitting down...but is very into eating ice cream for dinner.)

But the world we're navigating right now amid the COVID-19 pandemic, however, does not constitute normal circumstances. My mom is one of the seemingly innumerable members of the baby boomer generation not taking this crisis as seriously as they should or, at least, as seriously as my millennial peers and I are. She continues to work and travel between the still-open stores she operates in South Texas, which has brought a role reversal to our relationship: I now have a constant din of worry about her well-being, which has led us to engage in screaming matches.

This new reality has also, however, ignited something deeper in me: This pandemic has prematurely forced me to accept the role reversal relationship of becoming her eventual caretaker. During this global state of uncertainty-flecked doom, I've soothed myself knowing that if I lose my job or experience other financial hardship due to unstable economic conditions, I could always move in with my parents. So at least in some sense, I clearly still feel much like a child within my relationship with my parents, despite society suddenly challenging that dynamic by reminding me that they are technically considered, well, elderly.

Much has been written about how millennials are behind-the-curve in terms of "growing up" (and also, how it's not our fault but rather the economy's). Many of us have delayed childbearing, given up the hope of ever owning a home and, in some cases, actually still live with our parents. (And that was before the current crisis!) At the same time, our parents are looking better than ever (thanks, Botox), still working (my mom recently completed her MBA, too), and just generally being fabulous.

"Young people are realizing that they're going to be forced to make that final leap into the transition of being a full-fledged grown-up." —clinical psychologist Lara Fielding

With this is mind, it's not surprising that we've been caught unaware by the realities of our parents' impending frailty and mortality. "This is a big wake-up call for both sides of the equation [parents and children] that your biological vulnerability, no matter how great you look, is your biological vulnerability," says clinical psychologist Lara Fielding, PsyD. "Young people are realizing that they're going to be forced to make that final leap into the transition of being a full-fledged grown-up."

According to clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, the sudden nature of this revelation in light of the pandemic may be leaving us particularly vulnerable to feelings of helplessness. "[You might be feeling like], 'Nobody's in charge, because I know I'm not ready to be, but my parents can't be anymore'," she says. "'What happens if I can't handle this, and, also, what am I supposed to do?'"

For many of us, that notion is not the current reality; despite an inability to heed consensus social distancing recommendations (ahem), many millennials (and adults of other generations) have parents who are, as noted above, still perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. The point here isn't that they can't, but rather that they eventually won't be able to. That—no matter who they are or you are, whether a viable vaccine is found or not—is somewhat inevitable. In other words, our parents are mortal, and so are we.

How to make the best of understanding this sudden role reversal relationship

To deal with the sudden onset of all these unsettling revelations, Dr. Fielding recommends a few anxiety-diffusion tactics.

1. Identify your feelings

It may be helpful to name your emotions, e.g. are you angry/scared/sad? "So step one, validate your emotions," she says. "You can do that through meditation, journaling, or quiet time alone, but make sure you really find space for the difficulty." As part of this process, she suggests giving yourself "a bath of compassion," too—aka letting yourself off the hook for experiencing these vulnerable feelings.

2. Use realities that comfort you as affirmations

Next, she says, you may find it helpful to make a list of a few reassuring realities. For example, are you currently safe? Are your parents? "Keep the balance by practicing gratitude in your life," Dr. Fielding says. "So start by loving yourself and honoring the pain, then step out and say, 'I have abundance.'"

3. Reclaim control where you can

The third step she recommends is taking control of what you can. You may not be able to control your parents' interactions with the coronavirus, or their mortality more generality, but you can start taking baby steps toward assuming the reins of responsibility—because, whether you like it or not, this is part of the cycle of life.

For example, Dr. Daramus suggests starting to have conversations with your parents around things like pensions and paperwork. You don't need to do this now—as it's likely to come off as hysterical in the midst of a pandemic, and also, you don't need the added stress—but you shouldn't put off these conversations indefinitely. "Tackle one issue at a time, like 'Today we'll discuss the retirement accounts, maybe another time we'll discuss health insurance,' etc.," says Dr. Daramus. If you're not sure where to start, she says there are books on care-taking that can serve as a guide. And when you eventually have a plan in place, embrace it as a comfort, knowing that when something does happen (way, way, way in the future), all you have to do is run the plan in autopilot. Preparation, after all, is the antidote to panic.

And as you make these adjustments, know you may be met with internal and external resistance, says Dr. Daramus. After all, just as we may not be ready to give up our role as children, our parents may not be prepared for this role reversal relationship of us being the caretakers. They, too, may be caught off guard by this transition, and plus, no one wants to be made more aware of their mortality.

But also, don't stop sending your parents articles about the dangers of not social distancing, because if they're not listening, they need us to be the adults in the room right now. The coronavirus didn't invent mortality, or the fear of it; however, what it has done is make it impossible for us to pretend to be the children of infallible grown-ups anymore.

Talking about hard feelings is, well, hard; here, pro advice on getting it all out. Plus, I hate to be harsh but death is inevitable; so, it might be time to join the death positivity movement.

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