Mother-Child Role Reversal? Not So Simple.

Psychologist Paula J. Caplan is caring for her mother, but many mis-characterize her situation. They imagine role reversal, or the recent infantilization of the mother. In reality, care work is much more nuanced than this. She writes of the ways in which her mother still cares for her, even as she is playing a guardian role. And she works hard to insure that her 88-year-old mother doesn’t feel like a child.

This reminds me of a moment in the Vital Aging Conference, where a senior woman stood up and stated, “Our kids have the best intentions, but they must take into account what we want in terms of our care. We have life experience to draw on – we are not children – and we know what we need.” Clapping ensued.

Here in the U.S., where independence, autonomy, and control, are favored, few of us are yearning to be bathed by our children down the line. And carework must be elder-centered, or it can be infantilizing.

Often I get asked to weigh in on an eldercare quandary. Family members describe the situation. I ask, “What does the elder want?” And sometimes they don’t know how to respond.

My students were surprised to read Sarah Lamb’s work on West Bengali elders, where, in the traditional act of “seva,” children are expected to care for their elders in joint-families (multigenerational) almost as if they were children. This is payback for the care they received as children years ago, and symbolic of the cycle of life. However, with modernization, these traditions are disappearing.

After learning about seva, many students admitted that they would love to be served tea by their children, and have oil applied to their scalps. But they’d also be fine living with other elders, surrounded by natural beauty.

This is what aging increasingly looks like among the middle class in West Bengal, India.  A melding of cultures.  And I suppose it isn’t half bad, especially if elders are having their say.




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Meika Loe

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