Over years of consulting with adult children’s struggles with their aging parents, some issues stand out to me. Some of the hardest ones are about an adult child who was abused, neglected or both by a messed-up parent. These offspring relate that the difficult parent didn’t just get that way with old age. Usually, I’m told that they were always hard on their children, sometimes in the context of what sounds like nightmarish parenting. Resentment over what the adult child had to endure growing up is pervasive in these situations. But their folks get old, sometimes develop dementia and they are alone. Now what? Each of their children has to come to terms with a choice: let Mom or Dad self-neglect, endanger their own lives, or, choose to step in and take care of what the parent needs. The most basic needs are for caregiving and safety when the aging parent can’t take care of himself any longer.
I am knocked over by the generosity of spirit and the forgiveness that some adult children are able to muster when it comes to dealing with aging parents who are now in trouble. While it is true that some people can never forgive what happened with their elderly parents when they had control over their kids’ lives, some put the past behind them and step up to help. One unforgettable family with several siblings, all of whom were physically and emotionally abused by their mother, took her in as her health began to fail. They shared the burden, taking turns with caregiving and keeping her safe. And she did not turn into a nice person because of it! Yet her kids persisted unselfishly.
Some say forgiveness is not for the person who wronged you. It’s for yourself, to free you from the weight of holding onto the anger and pain the other person brought into your life. Maybe that’s how these amazing adult children do it—with forgiveness and releasing the past. I have seen this from time to time at AgingParents.com, where we work with the families of aging parents for guidance and strategy. Not everyone had a nice childhood with kind parents. In this work, we acknowledge that it takes a lot of dignity to look only at what a vulnerable older person needs right now, rather than revisit bad memories of the person. There is no room for vengeance. If anger and resentment dominate the conversation about the elder there is nowhere to go. On the other hand, if they describe that the Mom or Dad they have was awful to them but they are ready to do the right thing now, we can develop a plan. No matter how the elder was before, aging takes its toll. That motivates some adult children to take action toward their aging parent’s safety. I observe that it works best if the aging parent gets caregiving from an outside agency rather than the formerly abused person having to do hands-on care. However, not everyone can afford this and some families do the caregiving themselves, at least part-time. That’s the most stunning part, to me. How do they do it?
To any adult child who is now doing what is right by a difficult, nasty, or abusive aging parent, my hat’s off to you. You deserve acknowledgement not only for the work you are doing for your aging parent, but for bringing yourself to the place of taking it on. I’ve never met anyone who found this easy. Taking care of aging parents isn’t easy even when they treat you beautifully. But for those who have to dig deep to find forgiveness for a parent who was horrible to you, my wish for you is that your kindness comes back to you a thousand times. When I learn about you, I share what you manage to do, despite the past. I tell clients about it and I hope this inspires them. You may be helping others similarly situated without even knowing it. One takeaway is this: if you choose to do what is right by a difficult elder, you will never need to feel guilty that you didn’t after they’re gone.