Caring for the parent who never cared for you 97



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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.

Can you tell me more about this issue? Please leave a comment.

Originally published here

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Adele Horin

Adele Horin was a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald for nearly two decades. She reported on a range of social issues, from child care to aged care, and wrote a weekly column. She then wrote a blog called Coming of Age about baby boomers. She tackled subjects as diverse as the love/hate relationship with her Seniors Card, sibling rivalry over elderly parents and their money, suing nursing homes, and how not to dress like an invisible woman. As a baby boomer she lived through most of the subjects she's written about, including when to cut your adult children off the financial drip. Her blog can be found at

  1. I think the writer is very charitable looking after a mother who, while didn’t physically abuse her most certainly did a lot of harm to her and her brother. Leaving young children alone to fend for themselves, is a serious form of neglect. A very hard question I would imagine for some. But with only bad memories of childhood, I wouldn’t judge anyone. Walk in their shoes! Feel very sad for the children of abusive homes! Little ones need love and to feel safe.

  2. Yes. I would take care of them. I don’t have to like it, but I would have to do it. I am not like them.
    Just before my mother died, I went to the nursing home to have Christmas lunch with her.
    We had to wait a while until our lunch was served.
    Mum started doing her rave to me about what a horrible child I was. I stopped her by saying, ‘Mum…….Mum, who’s here?’
    She was quiet for a few seconds then said,’Thank You.’
    I lost it!
    The nurse came over and asked me is she had said something awful to me? I said,’No, she said,’Thank You.’

    5 REPLY
    • So glad that your mum actually said “thank you”. Hope that those 2 words replace a lifetime of bad comments. Brought a tear to my eye x

    • At least you say she was cared for in a nursing home. You were able to visit her. I am glad for you that in the end, you had some closure. I think it was wonderful of you to have that attitude, which paid of for you in the end.

    • I would always care for my parents whatever they did, but I was lucky in having wonderful parents so easy for me to say this. You sound a very loving person.

  3. I think in those cases, people need to do what they think they need to do for their own sakes. If they feel mean or guilty by not looking after them then maybe look after them with a good nursing home and visit when and if they want to. If visits become negative, stop until they feel they want to visit again. Elderly abusers can still be very manipulative and don’t change their personalities just because they’re old.

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  4. Sadly I lost both my wonderful parents at very young ages so i won’t ever go thru all the nursing home dramas as so many of you will and taking care of the elderly. Breaks my heart reading sad stories about families and parents not being taken care of.

  5. You have to be true to yourself…..I did what I had to and it was of value to me…I was there when she never was before…I got to admire her spirit and gutsiness in her old age…I know she cared in her own way.

  6. I don’t know what I would do I’ve never been in that situation. I think you have to do what you feel is right for you and your own family.

  7. I never treated my children badly. Now in my later years and having lost my husband of fifty years, all but one of my six children, don’t want anything to do with me. I feel so heartbroken. I moved away as they never came to see us whilst my husband was alive. I do live in the same area as the one that visits me. I’ll just have to wait and see. Can’t visit them as they don’t want me to. I’m the only Grandparent some of the grandchildren have.

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  8. It depends! My mum has favourites and i,m not one of them! I recently visited her ,she was warm and loving and when i got home she sent me a hate letter! Go figure…….i wont be looking after her!

    1 REPLY
  9. Yes Gillian Lees! It was!! Anyway before lunch was served Mum asked if I wiuld call her a taxi because she was ready to go.So I didn’t even get lunch! Lol!
    Still, I made it home to the rest of the family in time for lunch there.
    And for the record. I was not a terrible child.I just stood up to my parents when they were being unreasonable. Especially my mother. I felt and still do, that she was blind in terms if not being able to see the person I am. Constantly putting me down.
    My sister is wonderful, but I am not her.

  10. Oh Jenny! My mother did that so many times. The worst was the note she left for me to find after she died. Thats her. Not me.
    I remember her good days in regard to me.Have to. I never want to bitter or cruel.

    1 REPLY
    • Its just not me, its children and grandchildren that miss out! So there are siblings to look after her…….. i have loving children and grandchildren ……..i am well loved!

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