Caring for the parent who never cared for you

August 23, 2015

If a parent has been mean, unloving or even abusive towards you as a child do you have an obligation to care for them in their old age? It’s a loaded question for many adult children who harbour anger, resentment and bitterness towards a needy parent and struggle with feelings of guilt.

“I still feel bad about not being there,” Marilyn wrote to me recently. “I constantly struggle with guilt. I feel regret about leaving him to age without the benefit of me caring for him.”

Caring for an elderly parent is hard work and takes its toll but the bonds of love and affection can make it easier. Even a sense of filial duty can help: your parents did the best by you, now it’s your turn to do the best by them. But does a parent forfeit the right to expect care if he or she has been cold, selfish, neglectful or violent towards you in the past? What justifies turning your back on a needy parent?

Marilyn describes her father as having been “a violent and terrifying presence” in her childhood. But more than that, she says her father sexually abused her. It’s taken her years of hard psychological work to recover. Along the way, she broke off all contact with him and her siblings.

Even so, she feels guilty about keeping her distance now that he’s in his 80s. Sometimes she sees an old man walking or driving and she hopes that her father “is still as mobile as that or driving so well…..Maybe it’s the ‘inner child’ who still loves and wants the very best for my dad,” she told me. “…It’s confusing to me how much I care about the well-being of someone I despise so much.”

The CEO of Carers Australia, Ara Cresswell, says it can take years for people to open up about the confused and angry feelings they hold towards the parents they’re caring for. “It’s rare I’ll meet a carer who says she’s caring for her father – ’that old bastard.’” Even so when Ara learnt that a carer had been raped by her father as a young person and now was looking after him in her home, she was amazed. “I couldn’t be so kind,” she said. “I couldn’t do it. This is an important subject for carers to talk about.”

For some it may be an instinct for self-preservation that steers them away from an elderly parent regardless of what people, including nursing home staff, might think of them. A study by Boston College researchers, called Caring for My Abuser, found carers who did look after parents who’d been violent or neglectful were much more prone to depression than caregivers who had not been maltreated. Of the 1,000 carers surveyed, 18 per cent had been subject to physical, verbal or sexual abuse in childhood and 9 per cent said they had been neglected. Even when carers had overcome the trauma of their childhood experience, their now-aged parents “could be difficult people to care for, or may still be abusive to their adult children,” the authors found.

People can be more forgiving of parents who neglected them rather than abused them, it seems. It’s taken Zoe good medication to keep in check the depression that stems in part from parents who put their own needs ahead of their children’s.

After her parent’s marriage broke down when Zoe was a teenager, her mother was frequently absent from home with a new partner. “Can’t you stay home? Do you have to go out?” Zoe would ask her. “I was missing having my mother. I was lonely.”  Zoe was 17 when her mother left the country with her partner. Her brother ended up in jail.

Yet looking ahead to a future where she may have to care for her mother now they’ve living in the same city again, Zoe says she wouldn’t hesitate to look after her. “I wasn’t raised by brutal people, they didn’t physically hurt me,” Zoe said. “They had issues they’d never worked out. I’ve forgiven things.”

Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of Adults Surviving Child Abuse, said people who’d been abused or neglected as children often struggled with fundamental issues of identity. “As the people who hurt us age and need us to provide the care we ourselves didn’t receive, we’re often left highly conflicted,” she said. “Our humanity pulls us one way, our life experience another.”

She said it was easy for others to judge. What sort of person wouldn’t care for an ageing parent? But when a parent has not been a caring parent, how can you be a caring child?

In some cases families estranged over abuse issues are thrown back together when there’s no-one else to care for an ageing parent. “Effectively one can feel trapped,” said Dr Kezelman, “trapped in a role which is challenging at best of times but all the more so because of the intensity of emotions engendered by a childhood devoid of love and care.”

Marilyn will not be trapped. She’s kind of proud of herself for stepping away from her dad. She feels she’s protected her own little family. “I’m much healthier emotionally and psychologically without him poisoning my daily life,” she said.

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