Caring for Parents Who Didn’t Care for You

By Carol Bradley Bursack,

Last week, a journalist (we’ll call her Nancy) wanted to interview me about some caregiving issues. We chatted a bit about the article she was writing and she got some quotes. During the talk, we bonded.

As Nancy talked, she described the turmoil she is facing as her parents age. I was able to assure her that she is not alone in her feelings. She grew up with an abusive mother. The abuse was physical as well as emotional. Her father was gone much of the time, doing what most men of that generation did. He was making a living for his family and that was his role as he saw it. He wasn’t around much and didn’t “interfere” with the raising of the children.

Now her parents are getting frail. Nancy had been through a lot of therapy so she could learn to cope with her childhood issues. She’s come to terms with the fact that her father did what he thought he was supposed to do. She rightly felt, as a child, that he should recognize and stop the abuse her mother was doling out. Through therapy, she has learned to forgive her father for his lack of involvement and the fact that he didn’t stop the abuse.

She’s learned that he likely didn’t know about a lot of it. She’s also learned that he probably was in denial about what he did suspect, because he really didn’t know what to do. He was wrong, but she’s managed to forgive him for what he didn’t know, and for what he didn’t do about what he did know. Part of this is that her father recognizes where he failed. As he ages – and he’s the one who is showing the need for care at this point – she feels she is capable of caring for him, in some “hands-on” capacity.

Nancy’s even formed a bond with him, and though a bit envious about the fact that he’s become a terrific grandfather to her children (the dad she didn’t have), she is also happy that the bond is there for all of their sakes.

The issue remains that her mother will not admit to having been abusive. Nancy is willing to work on the issue with her mother and a counselor, but her mother totally denies any abuse. Whether this denial is conscious or “selective memory” doesn’t matter to Nancy. She was abused as a child and she wants her mother to admit it and work on it. She wants to see the cycle broken.

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Breaking the cycle of abuse is what Nancy is doing on her own, as she is totally aware of her background and is determined not to make her children victims of such a childhood. So, that isn’t the issue here. The issue is what does she do when her mother needs help? How does she care for a parent who didn’t do the right thing for her? How does she “get over” her feelings, or around them or through them?

Counseling can only go so far and Nancy feels she’s done as much as she can, unless her mother is willing to join in the process. But she is frightened about the future. She feels that she won’t be able to give her mother hands-on care and she isn’t even sure she wants to be involved with her mother’s care at all. Nancy does have a sibling who, for whatever reason, wasn’t abused, and therefore Nancy knows this sibling will handle some of what the aging mother will need.

As a columnist, I receive many letters from adults who were raised by abusive, addicted and/or neglectful parents. They are in a quandary, because they know society thinks they should care for their parents. Some of them have religious issues about “honoring their parents,” no matter what. However, many feel that they just cannot give the emotional and physical care their aging parents need.

They want to know if they are terrible people. They want to know if there are options. Some, like Nancy, have had considerable counseling. Others haven’t tried outside help.

It’s especially hard for these people when they read stories of families gathering together to care for an elder. They imagine that these families have nothing but fond memories of their childhoods, and they see this perfect circle of care. This, of course, makes them feel left out, just like the abuse did when they were young. The perception that everyone else comes from an intact family is salt in the wound.

Of course, most families have never been totally “functional.” Most families have had their share of “secrets” and bad behavior. But most families don’t qualify for the pain these truly abusive environments like Nancy’s left, either.

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I can’t fix things for these people who ask. They know that. They just want to talk. But I do assure them that they aren’t bad people for having these negative feelings. I do suggest they consider a few things:

1. If they haven’t tried it, get some counseling. Talking out your past with a trained counselor can be helpful. It can get some people over the hump of resentment, and they are more able to have some kind of active role in caring for their elders.

2. I suggest Dr. Ira Byock’s book “The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living.” Dr. Byock is a hospice physician. He has witnessed many deaths. And he has seen the healing that can happen when emotionally destroyed families find a way to forgive.

3. I suggest that if they cannot give hands-on care, they may be able to find peace for themselves by hiring a geriatric care manager to handle the day-to-day needs of the elders. These people know how to get the elders needs’ met. They know who to call. Geriatric care managers are expensive, but for some people (not only those who aren’t close to their loved one) they can be very useful. Unfortunately, not every area of the country has geriatric care managers, and also they are not uniformly regulated. However,’s directory of Geriatric Care Managers is a good place to start. Please be careful with Geriatric Care Managers. I’ve noticed on-line “credentials” popping up – and I don’t mean real on-line distance learning. I mean the kind you can buy for a few bucks. This is going to be an area open for abuse until there is some true oversight. That time will come, but it’s not here yet. If you don’t have someone in your area that can be recommended by a site or an agency you know, then I’d make sure the person you select is licensed as a social worker, nurse or some elder related credentials. Always ask for references.

4. The other option for families where things are truly an emotional mess is to get a legal guardian appointed. Many areas have agencies that specialize in this. You should be able to find out where to look by calling your county adult services. If you find you need to hire an outsider to handle the nuts and bolts of caregiving, don’t beat yourself up. You have done what needs to be done to make you feel like a decent human being. Life is not always neat. You know that already. So, do what you need to do and then let it go.

5. There’s some chance that, during the process of lining up help, you may find a way to heal enough to forgive your elders and be with them, at least to some degree. Try to be aware that your parents were raised by imperfect parents. They often did all they knew how to do. That doesn’t make abuse right. It doesn’t make any of it okay. But, understanding that they are human beings with flawed pasts – they were likely abused as children, themselves – may help you reach their bedside while you still time to say goodbye.

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C Holmes3 years ago

Those who make nasty comments or judgements about others, have something broken in themselves; they are incapable of automatically understanding that they don't know the whole of the judged-person's story. Sick people fail to control their own fears and anger--they tend to project their own insecurities and frustrations onto the target judged person[s].
To the degree a person knee-jerk judges others for failing to look the way they wish, or behave the way they wish, is some measure of how mentally/emotionally ill or broken they are.
It takes early training/sensitivity to others, to be able to look at others and automatically assume others have "stuff" going on in their lives, which they may be struggling with. More training, still, to quickly offer something as simple as a compassionate smile. It takes more security in one's own self and situations to then offer help, as-able.
Pretty much all people have some amount of brokenness from childhood, that we failed to deal with optimally. But those damages aren't written in stone, usually--when we know better, we can do better.
Those who are mentally/emotionally ill, either by damages to themselves, poor education, or biochemically--innate or induced-----will not be able to, or have a very hard time changing to become more compassionate.
To the extent someone tries to hurt us, may help determine if, or to what degree, we need to put distance between ourselves and them. It is important to forgive--yes. It's also imp

Dresia Vaughn
Dresia Vaughn3 years ago

other part of message. and greet them with a smile and or say have a nice day. Until you have walked in the other persons shoes, don't be so quick to laugh, mock, make fun of, say mean things about others. The toes you step on, may be the ass you kiss tomorrow. Vengence is no game, and God don't play. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Dresia Vaughn
Dresia Vaughn3 years ago

and may i also add, there are, and i mean ARE, so many frigid, cold hearted, selfish, rude people in this world, and a lot of people are hurting for many reasons. i have seen people judge someone because they don't smile often, (i was one of them that was judged and continue to be judged but i really don't care, and they judge you if you don't mix and congregate with others like they should or they think you should. you never know what a person is going through mentually, emotionally, and or physcially. it's so easy for those with out a heart to criticize others. a simple hello, can heal a person, perk them up, instead of smile, or why you look so down? or what's wrong? (knowing darn well you really don't want to know) How about a smile, a good morning or eve or just a smile, that can do wonders to the person hurting for what ever reason on the inside. People don't know people's stories so it's time to stop misjudging and replace that with a simple hello. You never ever know, you could be saving a person's life just by being nice to them. The world is more evil then good sad to say. One time this man was on the metro and he was talking out loud about people looking mean, evil, go back to bed and get up on the right side, life is good, no reason to look so mean and i wanted to say to him so bad, (EXCUSE ME, YOU DON'T HAVE THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF OTHERS, YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT PEOPLE ARE GOING THROUGH SO INSTEAD OF PUTTING THEM DOWN, HOW ABOUT ACTING LIKE A MATURE ADULT AND GREET

Dresia Vaughn
Dresia Vaughn4 years ago

Forgivness is hard, but can be done, to forget is extremely difficult. To care for parents, friends, etc that has mistreated and abused one all their life one way or another takes a lot of strength and power, and for those who have gone through such horrible experience, I take my hat off to you. It's by the grace of God I was able to forgive someone too, no, actually several people but I will never forget. It's a scare you wear forever.

Rose Balcom
Rose Balcom4 years ago

Don't get me started, but I forgave my parents when I younger. I also looked after both of them or saw to their care until they passed away. Love you mom and dad, always

Edvanir L.
Edvanir L4 years ago

I'm impressed by all these comments from people who have been abused by those who should take care of them. I understand this pain, and from the bottom of heart I wish everyone find peace.

Edvanir L.
Edvanir L4 years ago

Thank you.

C m C H
C m C5 years ago

Certainly forgiveness.
But that does not mean one has to return to that person and let them continue the bad behaviors upon them.
When there was poor parenting, Forgiveness helps the child survive.

Where it can go terribly wrong,
is when the dysfunctional parents keep thinking [and sometimes twisted family members, too], that the abused or neglected child should then be fine returning to the nest where bad behaviors continue unabated, or worse.

Alexandra Rodda
Alexandra Rodda5 years ago

Best to forgive, but the road to forgiveness is a difficult one at times. Counseling helps.

Terri Lynn Merritts
Terri M5 years ago

I took care of an emotionally cold mother, a physically and emotionally abusive dad who told me he never wanted me the whole time I grew up, a grandfather who molested me since I was in diapers and a grandmother who was cruel to me and blamed me for what he did and though she knew, refused to turn him in because it would force her to feel ashamed in their small town and to have to go to work. Why? Because that is who and what I am. I am better than what they were. I have mercy and compassion. That is just me.