The good and bad of being the only child of an aging parent

By Gary M. Stern

“It can be very isolating and lonely.” Without siblings, many decisions about caring for a parent will fall to you.

This article is reproduced with permission from

For adult children, caring for their parents as they age and decline is an inevitable rite of passage. But for an only child, being a caregiver is a different burden than those who have been raised in a family with one or more siblings willing to share chores and stressors. The only child often has to do everything.

Based on interviews with several experts, all suggest that only children can benefit from early preparation for the possibility that their parents may need help, anticipating the financial repercussions and meeting with a lawyer about power of attorney and supervising the will of their parents.

Caregiving is so widespread that the New York Times reported that one in five adults (or, as the article states, according to AARP, more than 50 million) provide unpaid health care or support. paid to a loved one, such as an aging parent or spouse. with an illness or disability.

With siblings or without

Because every caregiving situation for a parent is different, Brenda Avadian, founder of The Caregiver’s Voice, a website for caregivers whose family members have dementia, says, “Comparing a child who has from siblings to a single child, sometimes it’s easier and sometimes it’s not.”

An only child, she notes, “can step in, make the decision and do the work.” With brothers and sisters, there is sometimes strength in numbers and sharing activities. But often “not all the siblings agree, and the primary caregiver, who is often female, steps in to care for mum while other siblings bicker at the primary caregiver,” notes Avadian.

These conflicts undermine the caregiver’s efforts and exacerbate the situation. Again, Avadian said it observed a family of ten siblings who all cooperate and take turns caring for their parent.

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Watch for the signs

According to Avadian, if the only child sees signs that the parent is hesitant, such as forgetting appointments, neglecting to take their medications or being unable to balance their checkbook, it’s probably time to intercede. She advises asking parents open-ended, non-judgmental questions to determine if they’re forgetting things or facing day-to-day challenges.

The parent must be listened to and consulted, depending on his mental state. Whenever possible, include the parent in care decisions. Avadian advises that the best place to start is to learn as much as possible about the parent’s failing health or emerging dementia, disease progression, and associated behaviors. This way, the adult child can know what to expect and be better prepared for the parent’s future options.

Take your relative to their attending physician, do your homework, prepare two or three relevant questions and, in consultation with the doctor, assess the situation.

At that point, it’s a good idea to meet with your parent’s attorney to discuss their will, see if you can get a power of attorney, find out if your parent has a health care directive, and then finally become the executor or his estate if necessary.

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When does the only child consider placing the parent in independent living or assisted living when they cannot care for themselves in their apartment or house? “When you find out a parent is a risk to themselves, it might be time to consider other options,” Avadian says, adding that behaviors such as leaving a heater on or constantly having stale food in the refrigerator may be signs.

If the parent lives a significant distance away, Avadian advises considering inviting the parent to stay with you. See if it lightens their burden; maybe living together, or close together, might be a possibility for a while.

Caregiving can be isolating for an only child

When you’re an only child caring for your parents, “you’re always walking that line between respecting your parents’ autonomy and ensuring their safety,” says Aaron Blight, who writes “When Caregiving Calls: Guidance as You Care for an Aging Parent, Spouse, or Relative” and is the founder of Caregiving Kinetics, a counseling service for family caregivers based in Berryville, Virginia. Also, only children should watch both parents since one may be worse off than the other. “It’s all a balancing act,” he says.

Because the only child has no siblings to lean on, “it can be very isolating and lonely. don’t have siblings to relieve themselves,” Blight notes. For this reason, the only child could benefit from personal care, either through counselling, support groups (in person or online), or possibly through the help of a spouse. Hiring a professional caregiver could also be an option.

“You have this Herculean task, and you have your own life and your own responsibilities, and now the needs of your parents can intrude on your current life. Somehow you have to manage this with the needs of your parents,” Blight says.

The only children who provide good care for their parents show “resilience, the ability to adapt to adverse conditions and to make adjustments to meet demands,” says Blight. The ability to learn is another key skill because “there is no manual that comes with being a caregiver for your parent. Every situation is unique.”

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Consider financial resources

In order to determine whether the parent should be placed in an assisted living facility, Blight outlines several factors, including: what type of care support does the parent need; what services does the facility provide; if the needs of the parents exceed what the adult child can provide, and the wishes of the parents, as many prefer to stay at home and receive care.

One of the biggest issues for only children caring for their parents is whether the parents have enough financial resources to pay for the support, says Carol Levine of New York, who is a senior researcher at the United Hospital Fund. and at Hastings. 2016 Next Avenue Center and Influencer on Aging

“Some parents have a lot of money and are willing to spend it on looking after them. And some parents say, ‘No, it’s my money, why do I have to spend it on a stranger I don’t care about? don’t trust me?'” Levine said. But having enough money can ease the pressure in several ways, and Levine suggests planning for the future financial costs of care early.

The existing relationship is a factor

Much of what happens between an only child and an aging parent depends on their existing relationship. “If it’s been close and open and transparent, even with ups and downs, the relationship is more likely to change but continue to be close,” Levine notes. If the relationship has been rocky, “it’s hard to build a relationship when both people are stressed, needy, and don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But the only child can also reap a number of surprising and unexpected rewards. “Spending time with your parents, talking about their history, finding out how your parents met, and [other questions you] never thought to ask them” can be very satisfying, says Levine.

Caring for a parent “requires patience, perseverance and a sense of responsibility that most people have not anticipated, but which can be learned and accomplished. But this is not the work of one person; you need help and support where you can get it. Having someone to talk to after a bad day is key,” adds Levine.

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Avadian agrees. “Caring is exhausting. It’s often 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s a thankless job.” But there are positives, she says – the only child can give back to the parents, which is very satisfying, masters the art of patience and ultimately learns a lot about himself.

Gary M. Stern is a New York-based freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal,, CNN/Money and Reuters. He collaborated on “Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity into a Competitive Edge” (HarperCollins), a practical guide for minorities and women to climb the corporate ladder.

This article is reproduced with permission from, (c) 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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The good and bad of being the only child of an aging parent

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