When Caring for an Abusive Parent Means Sacrificing Your Own Well Being

Deciding how best to care for your aging parent depends on many factors—how close or far you live from each other; their and your financial resources; time; energy; your health; other demands of jobs and family; availability of other siblings, family members or friends to assist; whether help from professional caregivers is an option; family and community values regarding how elders are treated.

Above all, however, your choices will depend on your relationship with your parent. And if that relationship was an abusive one, the decision becomes much more complicated.

There is certainly plenty of societal pressure for adult children—especially daughters—to care for their aging parents. But honoring your parents, as the Bible instructs, doesn’t necessarily mean caring for them yourself if they were abusive or negligent in caring for you as a child. In fact, doing so can be hazardous to your own well being.

Caring for Abusive Parents Increases Risk of Depression

A 2013 research study in The Gerontologist by Kong and Moorman found that caregivers who had a history of parental abuse were significantly more likely to suffer from depression when caring for their abusive parents, as compared to caregivers who had never experienced such abuse.

The reality is that the trauma of emotional, physical or sexual abuse in childhood doesn’t evaporate just because it happened in the past. Unless you’ve worked through those painful experiences, old issues can resurface or fester when you are faced with responsibility for a vulnerable parent.

It may be true that caring for an abusive parent can also create a new opportunity to heal old wounds and find forgiveness. But such reconciliation carries significant psychological risks and is best undertaken with therapeutic support.

Filial Responsibility Laws Make Exceptions for Adults Who Were Abused as Children

While more than half the states in the U.S., including Massachusetts, have filial responsibly laws that require adult children to take care of their parents—some even imposing civil penalties and imprisonment for failure to support a destitute parent—the laws are rarely enforced.

In addition, most state statutes make exceptions when it comes to supporting a parent who has abandoned a child or done them some wrong.

Be Realistic About What You Can Handle and Set Boundaries

Ultimately, the very personal decision about whether and how to care for an abusive parent comes down to being honest with yourself and what you can handle—and setting appropriate boundaries. Regardless of guilt tripping by peers to care for your parent at home or other social pressure to keep him or her out of a nursing home, a secure environment in a good skilled care setting may actually be healthier for both your parent and for you.

An Aging Life Care Professional® can provide an objective assessment of your parent’s needs, help you to figure out what you can realistically handle, and mediate negotiations between you, your parent and other family regarding best options for all involved.

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care® manager. Drawing on more than 35 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.

Image Credit: Claudia Soraya

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