I was working as a consultant and referral resource for family caregivers when I received one of my most memorable calls. On the other end of the line was a mid-level manager for a large corporation, and I could hear panic in his voice as he rushed to tell me his dilemma.
“I got a call from a hospital in Atlanta,” he said. “They’re telling me my father is there with a broken hip, and they told me to come and get him.”
He paused and took a deep breath.
“That man was an abusive drunk,” he continued. “He abandoned me and my whole family when I was only fourteen.”
His voice cracked and trembled as he struggled to keep his composure.
“I went to college, got a good job, and I’ve raised a nice family. I was determined to do everything that he didn’t do, and I’ve been successful. Now I feel like I’m fourteen again!”
He wept openly on the phone, gripped by all of his childhood feelings of hurt, loss, and shame.
My heart broke for the boy who had worked so hard to become a man, for the man who was desperately trying to reconcile the demands of the moment and the terror that had seized him from the past.
We talked for a bit, and I realized that he needed permission to say “no” to the hospital’s discharge plan. He needed reassurance that there were services available to care for his father, and that it was OK for him to set this boundary. He needed support to deal with the difficult choice he was making.
The hospital didn’t know the situation, and the default discharge plan was to send their patient to his only son, even though they were separated by decades and distance, and by hurtful deeds that had been plastered over with diplomas and certificates and mortgages, but never really healed.
That day, I learned in a visceral way that many people provide care to older relatives, not because they want to or because they can, but because they feel they have to, no matter what.
- Some children of abusive or neglectful parents simply opt out of providing care when the time comes, and while no one came blame them, they are often criticized by other family members for “not helping.”
- Others engage in caregiving in a last-ditch attempt to gain approval and gratitude from a parent who has never been able to give it.
- Still others provide care because it fits with their personal values and sense of morality. They may say, “I would never treat another human being the way my Mother treated me.”
We know the stresses of caring for an older loved one can negatively affect one’s physical and emotional health. Now we’re seeing research on how caring for a family member who has been abusive or neglectful can add even more risk for family care partners.
If an adult survivor of childhood abuse chooses to engage with a parent who has been (and still may be) abusive, they are likely to confront the ways that their family of origin has affected them.
Recent brain science shows us that children who are abused or neglected are changed by the experience and may be predisposed to chronic illness, obesity, anxiety, depression, and addiction. There are social consequences to early deprivation, too, including lower academic achievement and socio-economic status.
The good news is that some relatively simple approaches can reverse those damaging effects and improve quality of life, and help survivors cope with caregiving if that is what they want to do.
It’s critical for these caregivers to connect with emotional support for themselves, and to obtain adequate help with caregiving.
With proper support and the development of a care partner team, there are possibilities for family and individual healing that can cascade through generations previously wounded by abuse and neglect.
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Do you know of situations where someone provides care for an Elder who has been abusive or neglectful? Please share your ideas about what helps them cope in the comments section below.
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Lisa Kendall is a clinical social worker and gerontologist with a private practice in Ithaca, NY. She has a passion for supporting Elders and their care partners, and offers trauma-informed treatment to adult survivors of childhood abuse and neglect.