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What's Harder: Caring for an Aging Parent or a Child?

Photograph by Twenty20

Fact: 66 percent of caretakers for elderly relatives are women, and according to one study in AARP, the average caretaker is 49, married, employed, and, we can assume, has her own kids.

While nothing can compare us for the heartbreak of caring for an aging parent, it turns out that the skills we master taking care of our toddlers come in very handy when an aging parent or grandparent needs to be taken care of.

I was lucky enough to go through the experience with my grandmother before having my own children. I say lucky, because it helped me develop patience and emotional resilience, and because frankly, I'm not sure I could have done both at the same time.

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My grandmother Carmen moved in with us when I was a junior in high school. Formerly known as the "Girl with the Million Dollar Smile" Carmen was used to being admired, being in charge, and being right. Does that sound familiar? These traits didn't go away when she developed Alzheimer's, but were amplified by the disease.

As it turns out, caring for an aging parent and a toddler have a lot of things in common. So which one's worse? Here's a quick comparison of the two from my experience.

Sleep – TIE!

Yes, it took my son a year-and-a-half to learn to sleep through the night, and I was completely exhausted when he finally did. While Grandma Carmen never had a problem falling asleep, she suffered from Sundowner Syndrome, or, the inability to differentiate between day and night, which meant that every so often, she would burst into my bedroom at some ungodly hour and demand I get up. Or, even worse, I would awake to her perfectly coifed yet confused self sitting on the side of my bed, wondering why she had come to find me. Either way, it was terrifying.

In her case, medication was useless, and you can't drug a toddler into sleeping either, so I'd say this one's a tie!

Temper Tantrums – Toddlers are worse

The first time I clicked on "asshole parents of Instagram" I couldn't stop laughing. Yes, yes and yes! There is simply nothing you can do to guarantee your toddler will be happy with your actions, no matter how kind.

While Grandma Carmen was equally explosive, senior temper tantrums have two upsides: One, they generally understand what you are saying (even if they don't agree), and two, you can generally reason with them. And you don't get kicked in the gut or banged in the nose while trying to pick them off the floor.

Luckily, ice cream works pretty well to appease both parties.

Running Away – Seniors take the lead!

The first time Hugo hauled for the street at full speed my heart nearly stopped. When had this kid gotten so fast?! I immediately put chain locks on all the doors and purchased a backpack with a tail and set about shedding my baby fat, one game of chase at a time. It's exhausting, but luckily, we knew we always had to keep an eye on him, so it was manageable.

Not so much with Grandma Carmen. One time my mother came home to find the front door wide open, and Grandma Carmen, and our wolf Lucy, were gone. After a frantic search my mom got a call back from the police and Grandma Carmen and her wolfie were picked up a few miles away, on a blistering hot Arizona afternoon. Someone on a smoke break had spotted the 85-year old with the giant wolf and decided to report it. Thank goodness they did!

No one likes to wear diapers, and I don't blame them, but at the beginning and end of our lives it's often necessary.

Dinner Time – Toddlers create the most trouble

Yes, aging parents may not eat enough, and they may be rude, picky or steal your desert, but in my four years of caring for Grandma Carmen I never had her throw her lunch at me, dance on the table, and then get butt marks on the cake because she couldn't keep her diapers on.

Diaper Changes – TIE!

No one likes to wear diapers, and I don't blame them, but at the beginning and end of our lives it's often necessary. You know the toddler drill: scream, squirm, fuss… it's messy, and it's frustrating, but at least these little guys are pretty easy to pin down.

With your aging parent, however, the problems are totally different. It's heartbreaking, logistically difficult, and really painful for parents to have to be changed by their adult children, and for you to watch your parents age. It's also super painful when they forget who you are, and kick you because they think you're an underwear thief!

Humor - TIE!

Making my kiddo laugh is easy: anything novel will do the trick, but some nights I go to bed with my lips tingling because of how many raspberries we blew. Truth be told, it can be a little monotonous.

When my grandmother's mind started fading she became less of the prim and proper woman the world knew her as and more the snarky, risqué broad her girlfriends knew her as. She loved telling strangers the story of how she was a hooker (rug hooker, to be precise), and the most hilarious phrases you'd ever heard. Even fights were funny at times, because she would cover her own confusion with grandiose jokes and self-deprecation. As the disease progressed we saw less and less of that gorgeous, fiery old lady, and to this day, that is the grandma I miss the most.

Medical Problems – Toddlers are scarier, Seniors are harder

Every single time my kid gets sick I panic. What if it's this, what if it's that? If his symptoms are severe, I drop everything and rush him to the doctor, and fortunately, It's always been one of those childhood bugs that all kids get. It's part of being young.

With Grandma Carmen, it was different. Every ailment, wound, fall or change in symptoms required scheduling with a professional, long drives all over town, a complex chart of medications and the realization that one visit at a time, her health was worsening. It's part of getting older, and it's painful.

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Creative Hiding Spaces – Tie!

The other day I finally found my husband's car keys in a box of baking mix with the handle cutout. We had been looking for them for a year. My grandmother's dentures have yet to reappear. Toddlers may not be able to reach as many places, but boy, they are endlessly creative.

Effects on your Health – TIE! Sorta…

Caring for an aging parent is physically and emotionally exhausting.

Caring for a toddler is also physically and emotionally exhausting.

An aging parent can often still do many things on their own, including entertaining themselves, but they can also get into a lot more trouble, meaning you must always be vigilant. A toddler needs constant supervision, but their mischief happens within boundaries. An aging parent weighs fifteen times as much as the aging toddler, but can no longer throw their weight around like a champion kickboxer, thrashing its way out of your loving arms.

In my case, caring for an aging family member and becoming a mom were both physically and emotionally overwhelming. With my grandmother, I suffered from stress and anxiety, with my toddler, exhaustion and guilt. But in both cases, I learned not only the amazing limits of my strength, but also to be kind to myself.

In one instance, you are sewing the seeds for a lifelong relationship, in the other, tending the garden that has nourished you for so many years. And both are so, so worth it.

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