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Fight or Flight – When Caring for Your Parent, Which Will It Be?


By Mike Good, Together In This

Caring for an aging parent can sneak up on us. Our parent’s needs increase so gradually that their condition lurks in our subconscious mind where we easily ignore the warning signs.

Occasionally, however, we are awakened by an incident that threatens their safety. When this happens, we are usually overcome with guilt and fear because we know we could have helped sooner. After a couple of days, the guilt may subside but the fear remains and sneaks in when we are vulnerable. This tends to happen when our head hits our pillow, resulting in a restless night of sleep. Or other times, it distracts us at work and prevents us from concentrating on our tasks.

When faced with a difficult or new challenge, our impulsive response is to avoid the situation. Once we take a moment to think about the circumstances, we generally realize that avoidance is not the best solution. We know we must find a way to build our confidence, and muster the strength to face our fear.

Putting Up Walls

Fear grows from a lack of understanding the challenge ahead of us. Often times it’s easier to flee and build walls to protect ourselves; “Mom’s OK, she doesn’t have dementia and dad can take care of her, or I have my own family to worry about.” And if we are a long-distance family member, we say, “There’s nothing I can do because I live too far away.” As we continue to build these walls, we start believing our own nonsense.

While we might feel out of harm’s way behind our walls, we still feel defeated because we know in our hearts that we can and should do more.

Tear Down the Walls

This fear is likely rooted in two areas: fear of the unknown and fear of failure. Instead of hiding and feeling defeated, you can fight back by replacing the unknowns with facts. This builds confidence and moves you towards success.

First, know that you are not alone. In the United States, just with Alzheimer’s disease, there are more than 15 million people caring for a loved one. So you must accept that your flight response, and the associated fear and guilt are absolutely normal. Remember, you’re not trained in how to care for an aging parent so you’re going to make mistakes.

Be a Friend

Continue by having an ongoing conversation with your parent. Instead of pointing out their situation, use other people as an example: “Did you know that John’s parents…?” Then listen to what your parent says; hear their fears and understand their challenges. Remember, a friend doesn’t criticize.

With this new understanding, you can study your parent’s particular situation and help guide them. For instance, maybe they fear they have dementia. In this case, study the types of dementia to understand the causes and symptoms. You can then help determine the next course of action.

Or maybe the situation is more urgent, and you realize that your parent’s wellbeing and safety are at risk due to Alzheimer’s disease. In this case, subtly discussing the benefits of assisted living communities may be a way to ease the guilt when invariably the agonizing decision will have to be made at some point.

No matter what your parent’s situation, running from your fear(s) will only make things worse. You must stop running and start fighting back by being someone they can count on to help them through their elder years.

Have you found yourself in this predicament, unsure how to proceed? Please share your thoughts with us.






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  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I was able to share it with my husband and he finally came around and has agreed with me to be more active in caring for his aging parents.

  2. One of my parents has vascular dementia and I find it so difficult understanding why people, this includes family and friends who see the illness not my parent.

    • I hear you. It’s hard to watch relationship dynamics change around you- in addition to the changes you’re already dealing with.

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