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How Do Your Aging Parents Say “I Love You”?

Jeff Anderson
By Jeff AndersonFebruary 7, 2017

Caregiving often results in a role reversal of the child-parent relationship — the “parenting the parent” phenomena. One day we find ourselves caring for aging parents who are as dependent on us as we were on them during our childhood. This role inversion can be emotionally challenging for both parties, especially around the Valentine’s Day holiday.

Aging parents may feel depressed or frustrated 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. Learn more about how you and your aging parents can continue to say “I love you” without the resentment during this time.

Love, Resentment and Role Reversal

Adult children may resent having to take on caregiving, which pays nothing but is as strenuous as any 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 of strength and wisdom in their minds.

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Clearly, the role reversal that comes with aging and caregiving strains the child-parent 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 preferred way of giving and receiving love, called a “love language.” 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.

What Love Language Do Your Aging Parents Speak?

To get a sense of your aging parents’ innate love language, think back to your childhood and how your parent expressed love to you and other close family members:

  • Did your father love to take you on 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 out to play? Your mother might be a speaker of the love language of touch.

Of course no one speaks one love language exclusively, we all speak a bit of each, but Dr. Chapman believes that people have one dominant 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 strengthen your relationship during this time.

Dr. Chapman’s five love languages include:

1. Acts of Service

This 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 instance. Of the five 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 assistance and dedication as acts of love, and are likely to be especially appreciative of your help.

2. Giving and Receiving Gifts

If your father steadfastly mailed newspaper articles he thought you might find interesting, or if your mother loved sharing flowers from her rose garden with everyone she visited, then your parent might be a speaker of the love language of gifts. Seniors who speak this language aren’t materialists preoccupied with accumulating possessions, rather they appreciate gifts large and small for what they represent. Gift giving shows recipients that you know them and their unique tastes, and that you are willing to sacrifice in order to make them happy. If your senior loved one expresses love through gift giving, make sure not to miss an anniversary, birthday 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.

3. Physical Touch

For many people, there is no affection or love without touch. If your parent is the touchy type, he or she will feel calmed and comforted when you make it a habit to hold hands, hug your parent regularly or pat them on the back.

4. 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. Get rid of distractions like the TV and side-conversations or smartphones, and get together with your parent for one-on-one time. Or perhaps take your parent out to lunch or to the museum, for instance, and really allow yourself to enjoy these experiences.

5. Words of Affirmation

Some elderly parents need to hear their family caregivers say “I love you,” and other verbal reassurances of 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 friendliness, gift giving, or even hugging. 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, be wary of the sting of harsh words, because those who are nourished by words of affirmation can also be particularly affected by comments that could be taken the wrong way.

What love language do you speak? What other ways of expressing or receiving love do you use that we did not discuss? We’d love to hear more about your experiences and stories in the comments below.

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Jeff Anderson

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