The Emotional Side of Caregiving: Changing Roles

By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

One of the difficulties of caregiving is that it requires you and your loved one to find new roles within a long-standing relationship. After forty, fifty, or eighty years together, this can be difficult. In the majority of cases, the primary caregiver is an adult child of an aging parent. These are the most widely studied, and best understood, caregiver-care receiver relationships. Increasingly, however, the role of caregiver is assumed by a sibling. Let's look at these role changes from two different perspectives.

The adult child's perspective

  • Parenting the parent.

    After a lifetime of seeing your parent in a certain way, it can be difficult to accept that things have changed. The toughest of these changes involves a disturbing kind of role-reversal: Now, instead of being looked after by your parent, you're the decision-maker. Practice makes the task a bit easier, but many people never feel quite natural in their new role.
  • Emergence of mortality issues.

    When your parents grow old or ill, their mortality becomes hard to ignore. And when your parents are gone, you're next in line. Frailty and illness in a parent is a very frightening thing. Not only are they mortal, but you are, too.
  • Old resentments re-emerge.

    Parent-child relationships are extremely complex. Even the most loving relationships have bumps along the way: mistakes, misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and let-downs. If you've always harbored hidden resentment because Dad wouldn't let you apply to medical school, there's a good chance this resentment will reemerge now that you're Dad's caregiver. You may find it useful to acknowledge these feelings during the caregiving process (though not everyone does or should). Whatever path you choose, be aware that old hurts still affect you. It's dishonest and unwise to pretend they don't.

The sibling's perspective

  • Now's your chance.

    If you've always resented your brother's looks, his great job, and his lovely wife, congratulations: Finally, you've got the upper hand. If you've been waiting sixty years to get back at your sister for stealing your boyfriend in ninth grade, guess what? Now's your chance. Old hurts linger, and they can have an adverse impact on the caregiving process. If you suspect the decisions you're making about your sibling's care are being influenced by old, unresolved issues, talk to someone-anyone-about it. Talking about it will help put things in perspective.
  • Sibling rivalry resurfaces.

    If you and your sister have spent your entire lives competing for Dad's approval, you can bet these old rivalries are going to resurface during caregiving. After all, she really needs you now, and it's your last chance to even the score.
  • Secret, shameful joy.

    When we harbor unexpressed resentment toward a sibling who's now ill, we may find ourselves taking secret, shameful joy in his or her plight. Rest assured this is normal. But you still have a responsibility to be a good caregiver if that is the role you've accepted. Remember: Feelings are feelings, and they're neither good nor bad. Where caregiving is concerned, it's our actions that count-it's what we do, not how we feel while we're doing it.

Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, which is available at, or may be purchased directly from HarperCollins Publishers.

Our latest book is entitled How to Age in Place: Planning for a Happy, Independent, and Financially Secure Retirement, published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.