Staying Engaged in Your Life When Your Parent Has Dementia

Picture of an older woman

Tips for Healthy Self-Absorption

Witnessing dementia in a parent is one of the hardest things we face as adults. Even in the early stages of disease, we confront the vulnerability of someone whom at one time we viewed as strong and powerful. The emotional consequences for adult children can seem endless and overwhelming.

One of the most unique aspects of human relationships is that we hold others in mind, and assume they are thinking of us as well. When a parent starts to forget, one of the things we may wonder is how much longer we will remain on their minds. After all, parents are supposed to worry about us, not the other way around.

Some of the hardest things for adult children managing dementia involve balancing worry and the realization that roles have changed. How people cope with these realities depends, in part, on the history of your relationship with your parent.

Elders currently living with dementia are part of a generation in which emotions were not generally discussed. As a result, some adult children of people with dementia may not have felt close with their parents, even in homes where they felt taken care of. Maybe their father worked all the time. Perhaps their mother was well-intended but overwhelmed in her role of taking care of children. Baby Boomers often remark that while their parents “did everything for them,” there was not a lot of space to deal with emotional topics.

Yet, emotions are at a surplus when your parent is sick. They can result in endless worry and preoccupation about loved ones that can keep us from being absorbed and spontaneous in our lives.

Here are some strategies for feeling entitled to focus on you:

  1. Do not ignore the range of emotions as they come along. Adult children often worry if they feel resentful about the amount of energy it takes to deal with their parent with dementia, whether at home or in a facility. Many of us do not feel entitled to express frustration or anger, but it’s important to do so with people you can trust.
  1. Don’t be a Super Caretaker. At times there can be a culture of competition among those who serve in care taking roles. It’s as if they need to seem as helpful as possible all the time—overly cheerful and at the ready to help out. Try to remember there is no one to impress. If you feel pressured about what others are thinking, it’s likely that you are being too hard on yourself. And in terms of all of those things on your To-Do list, try to keep in mind that done is better than perfect.
  1. Notice If Your Worrying Becomes Toxic. When our parents get sick, giving back to them can be extremely meaningful. But the demands of dementia can tax even the most well-meaning adult children, who often have their own kids, marriages, careers and lives to attend to. Worry can take on a life of its own; people feel wracked with guilt when they do anything fun or that if they are not constantly worried, they are not being a good child to their parent. However, the reality is when children deprive themselves of their own lives and their own pleasure, it not only feeds resentment, it depletes their ability to attend to the needs of their parent.
  1. Don’t Forget Your Body. The importance of exercise can’t be overstated but is often the first thing to go for busy adult children. Dealing with dementia in a parent is often a marathon not a sprint; you need your body to work properly in order to help your loved one.

Optimal coping with dementia involves attending to your own needs and feelings without judgement. Remember the advice we get every time we are on a plane: Put your own oxygen mask on first. Then help others.

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S. is a psychologist and author in San Francisco, as well as an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California, San Francisco, in the department of psychiatry. She writes about aging, illness and women’s issues. Her two most recent books are Psychodynamic Perspectives on Aging and Illness (2nd Ed.) and When Someone You Love Has a Chronic Illness.  She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two dogs, Rufus and Roscoe. For more information visit her website at and you can find her on Twitter @TMcGreenberg.



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