Empathy is a special way of coming to know another and ourself, a kind of attuning and understanding. When empathy is extended, it satisfies our needs and wish for intimacy, it rescues us from our feelings of aloneness.

– Carl Rogers

two elderly men sitting on a bench talking

One of the more difficult parts of attending to aging parents, is dealing with role reversal; becoming a parent to your parents. Caring for the basic needs of those who raised you can be a daunting task, and it comes along with no small amount of difficult emotions.

The Other Side of the Equation

Chances are, you’ve thought about this a lot. But, you may be seeing only one side of the equation. Imagine, for a couple of seconds, what this may feel like to your parents. To be physically dependent on one’s children, is not a wish most people ask for in life.

In her book, A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves, Jane Gross speaks to this point, arguing that it is ultimately the parents that suffer the most. She, therefore, encourages the care-taking child to be careful, not to demean or humiliate their parents.

This isn’t about swallowing your difficulties and putting things into perspective. Your pain is real; witnessing a parent deteriorate is objectively disheartening and subjectively excruciating and you should definitely not ignore your pain.  What this does suggest, though, is a developing a broader outlook, one that sees the pain of your parent, as well. Interestingly, this position has the potential to benefit both you and your parent.

The Healing Power of Empathy

Empathy has been defined in many ways. Essentially, it is the quality of seeing things from another’s position. When you attempt to grasp the situation from your parent’s point-of-view, you are cultivating empathy.

When you cultivate an awareness for what your parents are experiencing, you give your them a sense of being understood, which can sooth them.

But, it isn’t only your parents who will feel better. Chances are, giving in a new and authentic fashion, will have a positive effect on you too. In addition to the healing attributes of empathy, the mere act of taking your focus off your own pain and opening up yourself to that of your father’s or mother’s, can make you feel more capable, giving and helpful.

Empathizing can be a very moving and empowering experience. When you empathize, you help yourself too.


Caring for a parent isn’t necessarily easy on a physical or emotional level, to say the least. But taking a few moments to stand in your parents’ shoes, goes a long way in making the journey more meaningful and positive for both of you.

How does your understanding of your parent/s influence your care for them?

Please share in the comments below.

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