I hid in a closet with my elderly mom during a hurricane. It made me realize that sometimes children have to parent their parents.

I hid in a closet with my elderly mom during a hurricane. It made me realize that sometimes children have to parent their parents.
Courtesy of Sheryl Stillman
  • A crisis provided time to reflect on being a mother in the sandwich generation.
  • Becoming a parent to a parent doesn't happen suddenly but rather in bite-sized moments.

I recently became an empty nester, moved to Fort Myers, Florida, to care for my 81-year-old mother, and survived Hurricane Ian. Whether you're parenting a pet, child, or older loved one, it requires patience, unconditional love, and a level of responsibility that never seems to sleep.

Our job as moms is to steer our offspring from danger. As part of the sandwich generation, I recently added my mother to this list as we shift roles between who cares for whom.

Safeguarding my mom came quicker than I thought when a Category 4 hurricane zeroed in on our community. Though she was reluctant, I convinced her to leave her manufactured home and go with me to my concrete apartment building for safety.

I needed to connect with my own kids

On the eve of Ian and separated by several states, I texted my 24- and 22-year-old children requesting a video chat. As a single, working mom, I strived to be strong and not let them see the times when I was scared. I was always afraid when I traveled alone with the kids and felt the extra weight of returning them safely to their father after we were divorced. I had a similar goal now: Get my mom back home alive.

I planned to share that I was terrified. But after seeing worried faces pop up on the computer screen, my instincts to shield them from worry took over. I attempted to keep the conversation "light" while being realistic. Their grandmother made jokes. Neither approach worked. After hanging up and feeling like I had failed them, I turned to mom and said, "We will not die tomorrow."


When we rose in the morning, I announced we were going to a shelter. Hearing about 12-to-16-foot storm surges and visualizing swimming to the third floor from my ground-level unit was too much pressure. I've never even watched a single episode of "Survivor."

Preparing mentally and physically to hunker down

For a host of reasons — COVID, strangers, unfamiliar surroundings — routine is essential for those with cognitive decline, and mom said she felt safer at home with me instead of going to a shelter. So we grabbed supplies and took cover in a bathroom and later in my walk-in closet when the rooms went dark, the wind howled, and the windows looked like we driving through a car wash.

Going through a natural disaster with someone with dementia is like taking a road trip with a toddler — "Are we there yet? Can we look? Why are the lights off?" Perhaps the only gift of this devastating disease is that memories of scary moments like these fade quicker.

Like many mother-daughter relationships, ours has been complicated. But we are each other's first line of support, complaining or laughing with one another, whether it was divorce (mine), loss of a spouse (hers), or dating woes (both of us).

Becoming the parent of the parent happens in small, bite-sized moments — like when my kids rescued me when flying off a banana boat, or when they both snorkeled alongside me, "just in case."


While hiding in the closet, I reflected on their young years and how each taught me to parent by adjusting my behaviors and expectations to meet their unique and growing abilities. As adults, we think we're in control, but our children often lead the way. Now that they are older, "mothering" continues evolving based on where they are in their own lives.

Hurricane Ian destroyed much of my mom's house. "You saved my life," she said. Between the blur of being a daughter and mom, I will keep her ever-changing needs top of mind, and try to guide her with flexibility, love, and a healthy dose of protection for good measure.

Sheryl Stillman focuses on change management, communications, and coaching by day, and writes at night. She splits her time between Fort Myers and Minneapolis, and she's the proud mom of two young adults.