Elders vulnerable to abuse in domestic situations

Most of us want the best possible care for our aging parents. There are many ways to provide good care, one of which is bringing our parent or parents to live with us, or taking our family to live with them. Sometimes that works out wonderfully. But sometimes it doesn't. Not everyone is cut out for the day to day stress of hands-on caregiving, let alone 24-hour caregiving in their own home. What can start out as a loving gesture can end up a nightmare.

Stress can push caregivers over the edge. Even if a caregiver has had a great relationship with his or her parents, when the stress of working a regular job, perhaps raising children, common financial problems, and giving proper attention to a marriage merge with caring for an aging parent - perhaps one who has Alzheimer's disease or other dementia - the stress load can become unbearable.

First, it's the little things. The caregiver comes home from work tired and finds that his or her parent, who is in early stage AD, has decided to take all of the canned goods out of the cupboard because there was a TV report on old canned goods being dangerous. The caregiver faces this with good, if tired, humor. He or she explains the difference between old and new canned goods to the parent and puts everything back in the cupboard.

Then behaviors - and accompanying stress - become more challenging. As the parent's AD worsens, paranoia can increase. The parent may begin accusing family members of stealing the things the parent can no longer locate because of a failing memory. The parent can wander outside only to be found several blocks away. The parent can get testy because fear and confusion are his or her daily companions.

The caregiver's patience is severely tried, even though the person with AD can't help his or her behavior. The caregiver can begin showing stressed body language, and even unconsciously begin jerking the parent around while providing basic physical care. This can escalate to shouting, scolding or emotional threats. Sometimes, caregivers can reach a point where slapping and hitting becomes a way to deal with behaviors. They are out of control.

When you were an abused child

It's not uncommon for adult children who grew up in abusive households to want to care for their parents even though their family history was dysfunctional. Often, they've reconciled with the parents, however that isn't always the case. Often they are unconsciously still trying to make the parent love them.

Caring for a parent is wonderful. Caring for a less than good parent is an admirable thing to do. However, people who were abused as children should be certain that, whether through counseling and other help, they have put to rest the family history of abuse. If they have not, they are statistically more likely to abuse their elder when they are overwhelmed by difficult behaviors stemming from AD, or just the parent's personality.

Many people who were abused as children choose a method of caregiving that doesn't put them in this direct care model. That is often wise. However, there are people from very dysfunctional backgrounds that turn into wonderful hands-on caregivers. Emotional healing is generally the key. If adult children in this situation are certain the family abuse cycle has been stopped, they can give direct care a chance. However, they should be vigilant about the reality that the old family skeletons could emerge from the closet. Exhaustion and frustration don't often bring out the best in any of us.

Getting outside help can lower stress levels

Even the most loving, patient and kind caregiver is going to have times where the exhaustion and stress of constantly giving care to a live-in aging parent, added to all of his or her other duties, is too much. This is the time to get outside help.

In-home agencies provide some respite time for the primary caregiver and/or the whole family. Other visitors, whether friends, other family members or faith community based caregivers, can be the ticket to a more restful, loving relationship with live-in parents, where exhaustion does not escalate into abusive behavior. For some care help try Stephen Ministry or call your local RSVP and ask about Senior Companions. Both options are cost free. Catholic Charities in your state may be able to help, as well.

Be aware and ask for help

Don't let your exhaustion, frustration or resentment get the better of you. There's no shame in asking for help. If the situation is too much, it's time for assisted living or a nursing home. That time comes in most of these live-in situations, simply because the needs of the elders becomes too great. Take care of yourself and you are taking care of your elder. Next week we'll talk about elders abusing you.


Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.