Caring for Parents Who Weren't So Caring

Caregiver, patient expert

I've been hearing, lately, from caregivers who feel invisible in the caregiving world, or worse -  uncomfortable talking about their particular  plight. These people read about adult children caring for their beloved parents who, it seems, were perfect caregivers themselves.

This fully functional ideal doesn't many people's view of their own families growing up. It is hard for most of  them  to forgive themselves for resentments that no one else in the caregiving world seems to be dealing with.

To someone who has had a seriously dysfunctional upbringing, and is then faced with caring for the parent who was - take your pick: absent physically and/or emotionally; abusive physically and/or emotionally; drunk and/or drugged, it seems like every other caregiver has tender, loving feelings for his or her parents. Yes, it can be a struggle to care for someone in decline. But what these people see is the love. Caregivers get strength to handle the difficult times, because of the love they have for the person they are caring for.

Caregivers from highly dysfunctional families feel like they are on the outside looking in - a painful reminder of how they felt while they were growing up.

Now they are faced with parents in decline, and have many negative feelings about being "stuck" with the issue of eldercare. Worse, they feel alone and guilty with their feelings of not wanting to care for this person - this parent who abused them - but they feel that they must.

What do I say to these good people who are in very unfortunate circumstances? I can't tell them much that they don't already know. They face some very hard choices. Society expects that, in some way, they will "look after" their parents.

I tell them that counseling can sometimes help them sort through the issues and find a middle ground -  help them decide what they can and cannot do.

I tell them that there are guardianship services that can be appointed to look after the errant parent. These services are not emotionally involved, and the people working for them are trained to cope with difficult family circumstances. They know the ropes with Social Services and the legal system. The service can do what the adult child may not be able to do.

I tell them that, ideally, they can establish - for their own sake - some sort of healing dialogue with the parent, so they won't have regrets long after the parent dies. Let the hired guardians do the bulk of the care, but try to establish some connection.

I suggest, gently, once more, that they get counseling. Forgiving doesn't mean forgetting. Doing better for your parents than they did for you doesn't mean that you have decided that the way they abused you is okay. It just means you are trying to move beyond it.

However, some families are so broken that people can't do it. They simply can't. And who are we to judge them if we haven't been there?

All caregivers need support. Maybe these caregivers need more than the rest of us.

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