When Elderly Parents Are Abusive: The Tough Balance Between Self-Care and End-of-Life Care

| End-of-Life Resources

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The relationship between parents and children are among the most complex and most significant in human life. Ideally, a parent should be the greatest example of unconditional love and protection to a child. On the other side, a child should be able to love and trust their parent in an equally unconditional way for their entire life.

In some relationships, though, disfunction is the rule rather than the exception. For too many children, a parent is the first and the greatest source of hurt in a child’s life. And children will carry this wound well into adulthood — a wound that marks the parent/child relationship for the rest of both their lives.

However, as a parent ages, they might require a new level of care that can cause those lingering wounds to flare with renewed pain. This difficult dynamic is even more fraught when the parent refuses to acknowledge or apologize for their behavior, or worse, persists in their new behavior. But caring for an abusive elderly parent does not mean failing to care for yourself. In fact, self-care will never be more important. This article discusses strategies for coping, as well as the signs that it is time to let go. 

The Choice to Care

Caring for an abusive elderly parent is a reality that many adults face. In fact, in a recent study of more than 1000 adults aged 65 or older, nearly 20% reported having suffered some form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse at the hands of a parent. Yet, no matter how hurtful the relationship may be, many adult children feel compelled to take on the responsibility of caring for their parent as they get older and can no longer take care of themselves. This may be out of a sense of obligation or based in the hope of forgiveness and reconciliation.

But forgiveness is rarely, if ever, what hurting adult children dream it will be. In fact, aging parents may not be capable of recognizing their behavior — past or present — as abusive or neglectful. And if that is the case, then adult children may have to find forgiveness on their own, and recognize that they can no longer bear the emotional and physical harms that come with holding on to childhood pain.

Learning to Cope

When you are tasked with the care of an abusive parent, wounds that you thought were healed long ago may unexpectedly rise to the surface. Managing your relationship with your parent in this new phase of the relationship, where the tables have turned and you are now in the role of the caregiver, will likely mean dealing with a resurgence of old memories and dysfunctional patterns of behavior. 

A part of this process will depend on your ability to recognize your parent’s behavior as abusive or neglectful. After all, a parent doesn’t have to hit, slap, punch, or push to have inflicted pain —  any kind of neglect, whether it be physical or emotional or otherwise, can be just as traumatic to a child.

Learning to acknowledge, validate, and tend to your own pain is essential both to your own healing and to your ability to care for your parent. On the other hand, attempting to suppress or deny these experiences and emotions will only increase the likelihood that they will manifest in other, potentially harmful ways. You may even find yourself consciously or unconsciously retaliating against your parent, which may be an indicator that the caretaker role you feel obligated to take on isn’t going to be a healthy fit.

What to Do

Caring for an abusive elderly parent means recognizing your own needs and vulnerabilities. You may be more vulnerable to anger, aggression, substance abuse, and poor self-control after experiencing childhood trauma. Because of this, being proactive with your physical, mental, and emotional health is paramount. For example, you might consider supplementing your diet with nutrients like NAD+ which can help you combat the effects of trauma-associated changes in the brain. 

In addition, preparing for the care of your parent by outfitting your home with the equipment they might need, like vitals monitors to medication lists, can help reduce some of the stress and anxiety associated with caregiving. You might also consider placing them in a care home where they will be taken care of by professionals and surrounded by people closer to their age with similar life experiences and interests — however, if this is the route you choose, you may also have to be aware of the possibility of elder abuse when you are not there to observe.

Ultimately, caring for an abusive parent may end with you letting go. No matter how frail your parent may be or how close the end is, if the relationship continues to hurt and harm you or your relationship with your parent, then it may be time to transfer your care of them to another, whether that be a family member or reputable care facility. This may, in the end, be the only way to protect yourself — and your parent. 

The Takeaway

The hurts of childhood may never go away and this can have a powerful impact while caring for an abusive elderly parent. It is possible, however, to find ways to cope, and even to heal. This may involve learning about your own boundaries and when to protect them while providing end-of-life care. Above all, it means cultivating your well-being and taking care of yourself, whether you are in charge of your parent’s care or learning to entrust that care to another.


| End-of-Life Resources

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