How Do Your Aging Parents Say “I Love You”?
Caregiving often results in an outright role reversal of the parent-child relationship – the “parenting the parent” phenomena. One day we find ourselves caring for parents who are as dependent on us as we were on them during our childhood. This role inversion can be emotionally challenging for the elderly parent and the adult child.
Elderly parents may feel embarrassed, frustrated and depressed when their physical limitations force them to rely on a grown child for care. Their dependence and sense of helplessness can lead to a sense of despair, and sometimes resentment.
Adult children may resent having to take on full time or part time caregiving, which pays nothing but is as strenuous as any day job you could imagine. Many grown children feel a profound sense of loss as they witness the deterioration of a once robust, vibrant parent who embodied the essence strength, safety, wisdom, and comfort in their young minds.
Clearly, the role reversal that comes with with aging and caregiving strains the parent-child relationship and puts it on difficult and unfamiliar turf. Because the relationship between you and your parent has changed dramatically, you may need to explore new ways of expressing love and receiving love that are appropriate to you and your parent’s current position and transformed roles.
In his 1995 book, “The Five Languages of Love” psychologist Dr. Gary Chapman, proposed that each person has a primary and preferred way of giving and receiving love, called a “Love Language.” (You can a survey to learn your own love language here.) According to Dr. Chapman, people usually employ the same Love Language in both the giving and receiving modes. In the realm of aging and caregiving Dr. Chapman’s theory provides a framework for understanding our aging parents’ behavior and motivations, and our relationships with them, even in circumstances that are very trying.
What Love Language Does Your Parent Speak?
To get a sense of you parent’s innate Love Language, think back to your childhood and how your parent expressed love to you and other close family members. Did your dad love to take you on fishing trips but have a hard time saying the words, “I love you.” If so, your father might speak the Love Language of Quality Time.
Did your mother insist on giving you a hug and kiss every time you stepped out the door, even if you were only going to to play with the kid who lives next door? Your mother might be a speaker of the Love Language of Physical Touch.
Of course no one speaks exclusively one Love Language, we all speak a bit of each, but Dr. Chapman believes that people have one dominant Love Language. He says, “While each of these languages is enjoyed to some degree by all people, a person will usually gravitate strongly towards one.” If you are able to identify parent’s Love Language, you can use this knowledge to not only strengthen your relationship at an emotional level, but also to smooth your day-to-day interactions
Below are Dr. Chapman’s Five Love Languages with remarks about their relevance to caregivers:
1. Words of Affirmation
Some elderly parents need to hear their family caregivers say, “I love you,” and other verbal reassurances of approval and affirmation. They crave these words like a decadent dessert. For seniors who favor receiving love verbally, it’s not enough for your affection to be implied through general friendliness, gift giving, or even hugging and hand holding. Your parent will thrive on explicit affirmations and kind words. Say, “I love you” as often as you can. Share a compliment with your loved one daily. On the other hand beware, because those who are nourished by words of affirmation can be particularly stung by harsh words, so avoid comments that could be taken the wrong way because they can be especially hurtful to a parent with this outlook.
2. Quality Time
Parents whose favored mode of receiving love is quality time will appreciate moments when they have your undivided attention, when you are together enjoying each others company without distractions. If this is important to your parent, set aside time each week to just be with your parent, and don’t look at it as caregiving. Turn off your smart-phone, get rid of distractions like the TV and side-conversations, and get together with your parent in the sitting room or over the dinner table for one-on-one time. Or perhaps take your parent out to lunch, to the museum, or an afternoon baseball game. Allow yourself to let go and enjoy these experience.
3. Giving and Receiving Gifts
If your mother loved sharing flowers from her rose garden with everyone she visited or if your father steadfastly mailed newspaper articles he thought you might find interesting, your parent might be a speaker of the Love Language of Gifts. Seniors who speak this Love Language aren’t materialists preoccupied with accumulating possessions, rather they appreciate gifts large and small for what they represent: I’m thinking of you. Gift giving shows recipients that you know them and their unique tastes, that you care for them, and that you are willing to sacrifice in order to make them happy. If your older loved one expresses love through gift giving, make sure not to miss a birthday, anniversary, or other important event as they could take this as a sign of being unloved. You may also want to surprise your loved one with unexpected gifts now and then to avoid monotony and keep things fresh.
4. Acts of Service
Acts of Service is a Love Language commonly associated with men. The stereotype is the man who does handy-work around the house as a way of showing love for his lady-friend. Of the five Love Languages described by Dr, Chapman, this one should comes most naturally to the caregiver. As any caregiver will tell you, caregiving for a parent is a near continuous act of service. Parents who speak this Love Language will interpret your dedication and assistance as acts of love, and are likely to be especially appreciative of your help.
5. Physical Touch
For many people, there is no love or affection without touch. If your parent is the touchy type, he or she will feel loved, comforted, and calmed when you make it a habit to hug your parent regularly, pat you parent on the back, or hold hands.
What love language do you speak? How about your parent? Are there other ways of expressing or receiving love that we didn’t discuss? We welcome your comments below.
We Can Help! Our local advisors can help your family make a confident decision about senior living.