Toxic Elder Parents and Their Caregivers

By Beverly Bernstein Joie, MS, CMC
Certified Geriatric Care Manager
Philadelphia, PA
Member, Mid-Atlantic Chapter of NAPGCM

Beverly JoieNot all parenting experiences are idyllic.  Many of us are products of dysfunctional families.  They provide us with opportunities to overcome adversity.  We plow along and find ourselves along the way separating ourselves from our past and creating the possibility of who we can be.  And yet, these elderly parents come to a stage in life in which we are forced to pay attention to their increasing needs and evolving frailty.  What is an adult caregiver child to do?

Make no mistake about it, the needs of our elderly parents are a zip line to the past.  Suddenly we find no matter how hard we have worked to separate from our past, time evaporates and we become that wounded child once again.  But, take heart.  With optimal support and fortitude, the opportunity to transcend the past and solidify our adulthood is available to all of us.  There are gifts along the way.


Expect and Overcome Denial
Denial is a typical response to a parent’s changing needs.  Maintain a log of events as they occur.  This will help you see what is happening in black and white.

Develop Realistic Expectations About Their Situation and How You Relate To It
Realistic expectations rely upon self education.  For example, if a parent has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, learn everything you can about it.  Contact the Alzheimer’s Association for assistance.  Learn how to communicate to your parent based upon the stage of the disease.  Learn about the resources available to you such as appropriate neurologists, psychiatrists, alternative living communities, support groups, and assistive devices.  Knowledge is always empowering.

Know Yourself
How much can you do without compromising your mental health, your family, and your career?   How can you enroll the support of family members and your community?

Interview Your Parents
One of the best ways to get your parents to talk is to interview them about their life and their experiences.  You probably heard these stories many times before, but this specific request can be illuminating.  You get to really listen to them and they get to communicate in a way that is non-threatening.  You may achieve an understanding of the context of their life that you did not have before.  It can support healing.

Consider A New Caregiver Role
Think about creating a new parent-child relationship based upon the present rather than the past.  The past is over and you are not the same person you were and nor are they.  Recreate a new script for yourself based on the current needs and the reality of right now.

Self Preservation
Whenever you go on an airplane, the flight attendant invariably states the same thing.  In the event of the need for oxygen, always adjust your own oxygen before attending to the needs of your child.

This is sound advice that carries over to the caregiver role.  Without identifying your personal boundaries through self listening, realistic expectations and reflection, the resentment cloud will envelop you.  Learn what you can do and what you can not do.

The Gift Of Letting Go
When parents push the “past button”, we always have the choice to rely on our own reality instead.  After all, we worked hard to create it and there is no better time to rely on our own view of things.  Becoming an adult means releasing and transcending our need to be daddy or mommy’s little boy or girl.  Not needing our parents to care for us as we did as children (which they failed at anyway), allows us to claim ourselves in a whole new way.  The result is simple.  The result is our freedom!

Taking The First Step Towards Solutions For Peace of Mind
As is often the case in self-help publications, all of it sounds good on paper.  I know that finding oneself in the caregiver’s role is hard to swallow.  It usually starts out gradually as we take over more and more of our parents’ increasing requirements.  Or it is precipitated by a major event such as a stroke.  We do what we have to do and think about it later.

Once we acknowledge the changes in our lives and that of our parents, it is time to reach out for the assistance that is available.  Helpful links are included.  It will get you started and lead you to other resources.  Also, consider contacting a Geriatric Care Manager.  As experts in the field, these professionals are dedicated and skilled in dealing with your specific issues and can save you time and heartache.  A qualified Geriatric Care Manager has the skill to coach families and act as a buffer in dysfunctional situations. This skilled professional addresses the senior’s needs while providing the assurance to adult children that they can modulate their distance while doing the right thing.

Helpful Links:

Closing Thoughts
Being a caregiver is one of those opportunities in life that can provide unexpected riches.  I know from my own experience of caring for my mom and recently losing her.  She was a challenging character in many ways.  But, I do have solace from the actions that I took on her behalf meeting her needs, knowing my own limitations, and ultimately expressing my love for her.

We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations. – Charles R. Swindoll