Mothers, Daughters, and Our Changing Relationships

If you are among the one in five baby boomer women managing multiple roles of working professional, mother, wife, daughter, and caregiver, today’s newsletter is for and about you. Men, please take note. This impacts you too!


One definition of a caregiver is, “An unpaid person attending to the needs of a dependent adult, assisting them with activities of daily living and/or medical tasks.” Of the one in five who perform this function, approximately 16 million are managing an adult who also suffers from some form of Dementia.

Upwards of 75% of these caregivers are women who work and are raising children, and who also spend at least 20 hours per week caring for an adult (often a mother) who lives nearby. On average, we do this for four years (even longer when Dementia is involved).

Think about what that means to the rest of our lives: The time taken from other responsibilities and leisure, as well as the impact on our work, including lost wages, missed promotions, assignments declined, and lost savings.

Many of us made compromises to care for dependent children in our earlier years; now we are making compromises to care for our adult parents. No wonder women often don’t make the time to care for themselves.

Previous relationships can change

Some baby boomers seek help from Healthassist to help care for their older parents. Both men and women seek our services, but the decision among daughters to hire us is often fraught with guilt — they think they should be doing it all themselves. Interestingly, we rarely encounter those same feelings from sons.

Over the past year, I’ve observed many clients and some very close friends, and watched as the relationship between mothers and daughters has shifted, as illness and frailty set in. With roles reversed, the necessary emotional adjustments can be difficult and complex:

  • One client… had always had a mutually supportive relationship with her mother, one in which mom encouraged her to put her own family first. But when mom became infirmed, she forgot that her daughter had been there just yesterday and had her own responsibilities. She could not understand why her daughter, for whom she had sacrificed so much, could not move in and take care of her.
  • One client… had never gotten along well with her mother. Previously, they had established healthy boundaries. As her mom became more dependent, these boundaries faded and she had to endure her mother’s constant criticism, no matter how much she did for her.
  • One client… had a mother who was always fiercely independent. Today, and as a result of progressive cognitive decline, she adamantly refuses any form of assistance, threatening to call the authorities to say her daughter is abusing her if her daughter insists upon making changes in the mom’s life to help keep her safe.

No matter how much we tell ourselves that illness and/or dementia may be playing out, it’s hard to manage the emotional roller coaster that comes with a role many of us are totally unprepared for. Feelings of anger, resentment, sadness, frustration, guilt and helplessness are not uncommon.

The search for joy in all of this

Every situation is so different and there is no one right answer. The process can take a long time so it can be helpful to re-frame how you approach it and look for the positives from the beginning.

What can also be helpful is to understand your limitations and to forgive yourself if what you hoped you could accomplish becomes untenable. (The 60 Minutes episode I reference below depicts this so beautifully.)

A few suggestions:

  • Start early. Depending on your life circumstance, know the time is coming when older adult parents may need your help. Begin the discussion now, when they are well, so that you can appreciate their perspective regarding what they want going forward. Talking about how they cared for their own parents can give you some insight, but beware, the lives of women have changed drastically; you may not be able to execute as much as what they could at the time.
  • Involve others. If you have siblings, include them in the conversation. Family dynamics from childhood can come into play again as adult caregivers, so if you think there may be tension and disagreement, get the issues out on the table. I’ve watched siblings work beautifully together as they share the difficult times surrounding parental caregiving. As an only child, I admit I’ve been envious.
  • Partner with your parents’ health providers. Make sure you are in the loop regarding healthcare status, medical conditions being treated, and medications prescribed. Develop a working relationship with their physicians and plan to work in partnership. Just letting the primary care physician know that you are available, involved and motivated to help can sometimes lead to alternative decision making around treatment modalities. (Make sure to place a signed medical release form on file now, granting you and their physicians permission to share medical information.)
  • Expect things to change. What works today may not work tomorrow. Living arrangements and the degree of aggressiveness with medical interventions are just two areas in which it’s important to take an iterative approach. Just anticipating change can be helpful.
  • Seek out community resources. Transportation to and from appointments or to resources in the community such as grocery stores and local pharmacies can be extremely helpful.


Our parents are living longer, which is wonderful. But with those additional years may come the management of multiple chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and a decline in both physical and cognitive abilities.

Much of the caregiver burden falls on us daughters and, unfortunately, planning for these changes is not something we Americans tend to do well. As a result, families often find themselves in crisis.

Try and be prepared as best you can and, above all, try to live in the moment with your parents. Enjoy a good story, reminisce about happy times spent together, maybe even enjoy a good card game! When you do, know that you have made a positive difference in their lives.