Ground Rules for Caring for Aging Abusive Parents

Oct 22, 2000

Well, the title pretty much describes my relationship with my mother. I won't go into details. I am one of six siblings, and by far geographically closer than any of the others. I have two children. They judge me harshly, and the difference is...they are allowed to do so. They watch how I related to my parents, now my only parent who is aging and isolated. The make comments and criticisms, and I listen, then respond...not always in their favor, but sometimes. And I explain.

I go into my relationship with my children in this post to explain that I treat my mother with an audience always watching, my children. First and foremost, if you find yourself caring for an ill parent, the healthiest thing to do is to let go of the past. Your children are watching how you treat a parent. You must decide to give care or not to give care...there is no in-between. If you are going to be default, reluctantly, had better really be there.

Here are some tips to stay sane:

1. Do not visit the past. An abusive parent will repaint the past sometimes in order to live with him/herself. This will make his/her life less frightening as it draws inevitably toward the end. It is infuriating to listen to a mockery of your past pain and see a fictional family develop in front of your eyes. Father Knows Best, and all. It takes great courage to say, "I will be here for you now. I want to develop and cherish a relationship in the future. But I cannot do it if you dredge up the past." Don't fling individual incidents and hurts up at your parent. It serves no purpose. The only way to discuss the past is if your parent brings it up, truthfully, bare, and apologizes. This is not likely to happen. So...establish your relationship in the present and the future. It will be much better than the past. As I did, you may rediscover the humorous and intelligent side of your parent, but only by refusing to relive the past.

2. Do not allow yourself to be abused again. If the conversation is manipulated into an abusive, ugly thing (I'm assuming the parent is physically weaker than you and limits abuse to verbal manipulation), it is time to go. End of story. Leave. Come back on a different day. If it happens again, leave. Come back on a different day. If it happens get the picture. Broken record. Eventually, they must make a choice. They will need you.

3. Give it up. Don't blame your parent for your failures. Yes, there were failures from the get-go for which your parent was directly responsible...until you were out on your own. The failure then was having to learn how to live in a normal world, to learn by trial and error, not by example. Once that's done, you were--are--on your own. You are responsible for your own failures...AND your OWN successes. If you continually blame your parent for your failures, you must then in turn credit him/her with your successes. In other words, if your past abuse has shadowed your life, it has shadowed your successes as well as your failures. Let it go. That way you can shine in your successes as an accomplishment won by you alone. Don't share that. The only way you can keep that is to let go. Anger will eat you alive and waste decades, but only if you allow it. Taking full credit for each and every one of your successes will help you to let go of the past.

4. Your children are watching. They are taking their lead from you. They see you take in a scraggly stray cat and feed it. What will they think if you allow a parent to waste away? Give them the example you never had.

5. Listen. There is hurt in an abusive parent's life. It is a chain that never was broken. Listen to the needy person in front of you as he/she never listened to you. You will learn a lot.

6. Ask what they want in their lives/illness/death. Much of an abusive parent's need is control, something he/she never had, or felt he/she never had. Ask, and then have them write down what they want. They are ill, dying, the control of their bodies is leaving. They need control desperately, for in the control of their children's lives they exhibited their lack of control, lack of control of themselves. It is the one thing they never had, or never perceived having. Control over their own lives is appropriate, and you can and must allow that.

Now, to battle another challenge: Your siblings.

That's tougher. If they are not with you in this, they are full of advice, especially advice on patience...from a thousand miles away, of course. They will visit once every two years, then say, "Gosh...he/she looks so bad; somebody should be watching him." The fair response is, "Listen, donghead, I'VE BEEN WATCHING, AND IT AIN'T EASY; where the hell are you?" Go with your guts on this one. But siblings tend to stick together eventually. One way to handle this is to keep a record of doctor/lawyer/financial meetings, and if the question ever comes up (who the hell got THIS lawyer? What the hell is this stupid doctor doing?) you can calmly pull out a paper and say, "This is what they're doing." This pretty much shuts up the long-distance criticism of perceived neglect.

Don't become the reminder of birthdays. As soon as you phone to remind them of your parent's birthday/anniversary, they will be on the phone to be the first to wish "Happy Birthday" while you're still making your phone calls. They're big boys and girls. You don't have time to keep them in good graces without their effort.

Be careful not to fall into the trap of discussing future plans for your parent behind your parent's back. Not only do you take this out of your parent's hands, the control they need, but after all is decided will be left to put it into place and convince your parent that this is right.

Assure yourself that all preparations are made. This includes asking where and how your parent would like to rest permanently--a cemetery? Cremation? Where? Yes, a tough question, but one you need to know. Does your parent have enough money to put this into place? If not, investigate the options with your own pocketbook in mind. Get it done now. Ask what type of environment they will want around them...a rest home? At their own home? Do they have enough money for at-home care, should they be totally disabled? If not, point that out and ask which type of home they'd like to live in. Now is the time to collect references from your friends and their families, your parent's insurance company, and your parent's medical group. Consider and ask your parent about the option of selling the house to support this.

If your parent wants to live with you...some tough honesty is due. If you know you will end up choking your parent or putting a bullet through your head, find a way to say so. Your parent smokes incessantly; your parent coughs through the entire night; your parent needs a bathroom of his/her own; your parent is an alcoholic; your parent needs the house at 98 degrees...or 48 degrees. These are not things to be taken lightly. You need to discuss this, and be brave enough to state that it is not feasible for him/her to live with you and your children. Allergies are one big problem; second-hand hazard...these are real problems, true. But let's face are not about to be a slave to an abusive parent again, nor are you willing to let your children see a household destroyed and reduced to bitter animosity. You may just have to say, "We would kill each other, ma (or pa), if we lived together. I like visiting you, and you need your privacy." Period. Examine ALL alternatives. This is not always an answer to a financial strain, either, as it may end up being just as expensive financially as it is psychologically and morally.

I don't have many answers, but the basic rule is that your parent, abusive as he or she was, needs care. Although it is easy to say "forgive and forget", it's not likely to happen in most cases. Burying the past is often criticized; why? We don't have the luxury of time to explore our pasts and "work through it". Allowing it to scar over, like a healing wound, is a better analogy. The toughest thing is avoiding the past, avoid picking at the wound. You may, just maybe, ultimately gain by reestablishing a relationship, with ground rules, with your parent. As time goes by, this becomes more palatable, sometimes even enjoyable. Those are the times you missed as a child. Relish it.

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