Illustration courtesy of Allegany Art

AGING PARENTS: Changing Faces, Facing Changes 

According to role theory, the self emerges from the roles. This experiential workshop will use role theory to identify difficulties and validate resources surrounding issues of aging parents. We will explore the internal, interpersonal and communal process of facing and accepting changes as parents advance in years. Using creative arts, we will examine both our unique tasks and our shared concerns. This warm-up will lead to psychodramatically exploring these emerging roles. 

Moreno defined roles as “the actual and tangible forms which the self takes. We thus define the role as the functioning form the individual assumes in the specific moment he reacts to a specific situation in which other persons or objects are involved. The symbolic representation of this functioning form, perceived by the individual and others, is called the role. The form is created by past experiences and the cultural patterns of the society in which the individual lives, and may be satisfied by the specific type of his productivity. Every role is a fusion of private and collective elements. Every role has two sides, a private and a collective side. (The Essential Moreno pg. 62) 

According to role theory, the self emerges from the roles; as we expand our role repertoire, we expand our sense of self. In childhood and adolescence, there is significant expansion of our role repertoire. As we age we continue to gain roles, but also begin to lose some. Some of these can be physical or somatic roles, due to a diminished capacity for certain activities or medical conditions. And for those of us dealing with aging parents, we also develop new reciprocal roles as both we and our parents make shifts in our role repertoires. Often, this can include children taking on parental roles with greater frequency than we did in the past. These are likely not new roles; even a child can reverse roles when Daddy is tired or Mommy has a headache. However, as parents age, we typically assume caretaking roles more frequently – helping with finances, arranging doctors’ visits, even taking on hospitality roles. If parents downsize their homes, it can fall to one of the adult children to create the gathering place for family parties and holidays.

 In this workshop, we will use role theory to explore not only changes in our roles as parents age, but explore potential roles and resources for redeveloping our available roles. 

Roles, as Moreno describes them, are a description of any constellation of behaviors which are currently being enacted. Since relationships are a here-and-now event, we will look at roles as being who we are in the given moment. Roles change; and we change as well, responding and acting differently with various persons and situations. 

In creating new roles, we stress that roles exist only within the context of relationships. To take and sustain a role, there must be a complimentary or reciprocal role. This reciprocity can exist in another person, in the group, or as an internalized role in our imagination or conscience. Simply put, there can be no wife/husband without a spouse, no teacher without a student. Each of these behaviors makes role demands of the other person. When one person responds reciprocally to the role demands of the others person, the dynamics are maintained and over time, the roles are strengthened. 

Roles are specific. While basic role theory can be seen in Eric Berne’s work in Transactional Analysis, our understanding will be severely restricted if we limit the roles to Parent/Adult/Child. A fuller picture will be made when the role is defined through both an adjective and a noun. The noun: Student, Child, Mother, Trainer, gives us information as to the person in the interaction and describes collective aspects of the role. The adjectives: Angry, Distant, Cheerful, Loving, define the behavioral and some personal aspects of the role. For example, as a group we might have a broad range of images if we each described an encounter between Mother and Child. If we specify adjectives to clarify the encounter as occurring between an Exhausted Mother and a Hyperactive Son, our images of the role relationship would be clearer and more consistent. If we consider Fragile, Elderly Mother and Depleted Daughter, our image of the interactions is profoundly different. 

As we develop roles, we can have a high or low degree of role perception and different levels of role enactment. Role perception is cognitive and anticipates forthcoming responses. Role enactment is a skill of performance. (Essential Moreno pg. 63) 

“Role Repertoire is a term used to denote the group of developed roles we use and have used in our lives. They are the roles that are currently available to us…” (SOCIODRAMA: Who’s in Your Shoes?, Sternberg & Garcia)   Within our repertoire, we have the Somatic roles: these are the physical ones such as eater, sleeper, dancer. These are the first roles we develop. The Social roles are those that develop out of our interactions with others, work roles, and social roles, such as therapist, parent, child, etc. The Psychodramatic roles are the roles we develop in fantasy and in our imagination. These can include idealized husband/wife, characters from stories and dream roles. Often children play out psychodramatic roles as a warm up to social roles later in life. Playing house as a child can help develop the roles needed for later adult relationships. 

Roles can be rudimentary or underdeveloped, within normal development or overused and overdeveloped. One of the clinical uses of role theory is to assess our roles or the roles of a client, and determine which roles need further development or where there is a need for role relief. 

As a person grows, there is often a desire to ‘drop’ an old role. In point of fact, we are unlikely to forget a role, once developed. We might reduce the importance of a particular role, or decrease the frequency with which we enact certain behaviors. But roles, once learned, are rarely forgotten. A parallel can be seen in the alcoholic who is ‘in recovery’ but not cured. We can stop using a problematic role, but never quite extinguish it. From a role theory perspective, our support groups are there to help reciprocate our positive, recovery roles. We can invest energy in developing new roles that are more productive and thereby expand our options and choices for interacting. 

To create roles, it is important to understand the concept of role taking, playing, and creating. These are the developmental stages through which we can expand our repertoire of roles.

  • Role Taking is when we enact a role, which we know through our observation of others. These tend to be taken out of a structured framework, with little of our own spontaneity included.
  • Role Playing is the second stage, in which we start to identify and interact within particular roles. We might borrow aspects of a developing role from a range of sources. We adapt and alter roles, and bring our own spontaneity and creativity into the role to give it further dimension. The role is in the process of being internalized.
  • Role Creating is one of the tasks of individuation. It is at this point that we develop the role within. Rather than asking “What would (my mentor, mother, Jesus) do?” we draw on our internal resources, making the role specific and unique to us. In role creating, we are accessing considerably more spontaneity. 

As we formulate these new roles, they may in turn become the catalyst for another person’s role development. 

Within our role repertoire, we will often develop relationships in which the reciprocal roles are very satisfying. We can also encounter situations where we have role conflict, either because we are in a role that we neither like nor find satisfying, or because of social pressures to adhere to a role that is an uncomfortable fit. As children and parents age, a number of new roles emerge. We can shift roles of receiving from parents to becoming their provider. Once they set the curfew and managed boundaries; now we might need to tell them they can no longer drive. They may continue taking roles of parenting the adolescent child while you are trying to be an adult child. In parenting them through restrictions or limitations, there could be some significant role conflicts. We might not be comfortable with new or developing role demands or we might not believe we have an appropriate role within our conscious repertoire. 

Some areas in which role shifts can occur including physical, psychological, social, financial, and spiritual. If we consider that roles strengthen when they are reciprocated, we might consider what changes we can make to our role repertoire, that can help an aging parent continue to develop and integrate positive roles. Aging parents can make demands on our time: care-taking, running errands, medical appointments, etc. They can also make emotional demands. Depending on the roles they take in specific situations, you are likely to begin warming up to certain roles. 

Roles can be more public than just between yourself and a parent. One problem surfaces when either you or your parents allow cultural role demands to confuse your efforts to create healthy role balance. Messages that reflect, “What kind of a son/daughter would…” have the potential of triggering roles that are dysfunctional for both you and your parents. 

Role demands can change suddenly due to something such as a fall or change in financial status or something as major as needing to move into an assisted living complex or the death of one of your parents. If roles rapidly change, we might not have sufficient time to develop the healthiest reciprocal roles. Suddenly, we are scrambling for an adequate role, and moving from crisis to crisis. 

What self-care roles are already developed and integrated into our role repertoire? If we do not have sufficient roles to maintain an internal equilibrium, we can look at the stages of role creation, and consciously begin to develop and practice roles that will allow us to maintain self-care and celebrate our resources. 

Some important questions, from a role theory perspective, include whether we have sufficient role training and auxiliaries to help us internalize the roles we need to adapt to a changing relationship with parents. What are ways that we can help an aging parent to integrate necessary new roles in their daily life?      

We can also look to those areas of our life that offer role relief? Can we retain a healthy perspective and manage our own stress in a situation where several role demands are intensifying? One way to monitor your own self-care is to observe shifts within your social atom. Are a majority of roles depleting or making significant demands on you? Are there people from whom you receive support and strength? Reciprocated roles are strengthened and integrated. Do you have people who can help you develop and internalize some of the roles needed when parents age? Who are your auxiliaries for this specific role development? 

Psychodrama and sociometry offer a number of powerful tools for assessing the needs during these transitional times. Some examples can be to work with a role diagram, and determine what roles are underdeveloped or currently not available. Creating our social atom can be a means of assessing our current level of support and determine if there are additional supports available or needed. If there are underdeveloped roles, who are those individuals who can reciprocate these in a positive manner, and bring them closer to the fore? While this journey, as an individual and as a family, is a deeply personal one, there are also ways to be appreciative of those resources available to us, from within and within our social atom. 

Stephen Kopp, MS, TEP 


A Bitter-Sweet Season: Caring For Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves Jane Gross, Alfred A Knopf, NY 2011 (Sharing her personal journey, information, and good resources at the end of the book) (Under ‘blog’ are some brief, supportive articles on aging parents, February 12, 2014 and continuing.) 

When Parents Die: Learning to Live with the Loss of a Parent

Rebecca Abrams and Colin Murray Peakes, Rutledge Publishing, 3rd addition, 2013 

Quotes from:

The Essential Moreno, J.L. Moreno (Jonathan Fox, Editor), Springer Publishing Company NY 1987 

Sociodrama, Who’s In Your Shoes, Patricia Sternberg Antonina Garcia, Praeger Publishing, Connecticut 2000


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