Caring for a Difficult Parent

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Leo Tolstoy.

When your childhood included constant criticism from your parent, excessive sibling rivalry or worse, you may be left with painful, unacknowledged truths. Re-engaging with your parents and siblings to care for your parent may mean that old roles that you have struggled to overcome re-emerge.

In my practice as The Eldercare Coach, I meet many clients who have worked long and hard to overcome the deficits of their upbringings. Children raised by parents who did not have the skills and self love to be good parents. Living on the West coast I meet many people who live as far as they can from their families and from what they tell me, for very good reasons.

What happens when the parent who did not take good care of you, needs your help?

Every adult child called upon to care for an aging parent is concerned about how his/her caregiving role will affect other parts of life. What happens to busy careers when you need to take time away from work to help your parent? What sacrifices will your family make?

When your family atmosphere when you were growing up was toxic to you, the questions can be more urgent. How do you prevent your personal and spiritual growth from being undermined by a close encounter with your parent and other family members?

Here are some suggestions to make engaging with your troubled family safer for you.

Honor the values that lead you to provide care to a family member.
Caring for a family member is an expression of your values and beliefs. Its worth digging deep to examine your reasons for caring for your difficult parent.

Some of the beliefs or hopes we may hold about caring for a family member can be dangerous to your well being. Providing care to earn love, respect or acceptance is tricky. You are putting your emotional well being in the hands of others. It requires their approval for you to feel good about yourself.

The reality of taking care of a family member can mean making decisions that your family member does not like. While it may be the right decision to keep your family member safe, you are unlikely to feel their approval or acceptance or receive any gratitude from them for your decision.

Connecting with your core values can help sustain you doing tough caregiving times.

Build a support network that is wide and deep to help ward off stress.
Your network needs to be carefully constructed with trustworthy friends and professionals. Know the warning signs that tell you that you need to disengage, take a walk or cut short your visit. Know the warning signs of sinking back into your old way of thinking when exposed to your family.

Be clear about what you need from a member of your network when you seek his/her support.

What you don't need is lectures against caring for a family member. In the moment, you may need support, a listening ear, a hug, resources or brainstorming. Being as clear as you can about what you need, helps your network support you.

Define your boundaries.
All family caregivers should look at defining what they will and will not do for their family member. That's the most common mistake I see people make is failing to consider their own needs or asking how they will cope with this level of intense caregiving over a longer period of time.

Its even more important to consider boundaries when you have a troubled family history. Communicating your boundaries to other family members or having a strategy for coping when they encroach on your boundaries is important. Stay in tune with your own emotional state. Its vital to check in on your level of stress. It may be necessary to buffer yourself with more outside services than another caregiver would.

I often recommend in difficult situations that my clients limit the amount of time they spend with family members who are abusive or have been in the past. Limiting your exposure while making sure your family member is well cared for may look like short, regular visits, more phone check ins, staying in a hotel or with friends when visiting parents, hiring caregivers or others to provide services to your parent or scheduling pleasurable activities after anticipated stressful visits.

One of my clients told me that she had the best looking feet in her neighborhood because she scheduled a pedicure after every visit with her mother who was demented and often became verbally abusive.

Knowing your values for providing care, building a strong support network and defining and maintaining your boundaries are important ways to care for a difficult parent while maintaining your well being.

Are you caring for a family member over the objections of your spouse, children or friends who see the risks you are running by engaging with your parent and question your decision to be involved?

How do you maintain your balance in a toxic situation?