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Taking care of parents who
didn't take care of you

Margaret is the adult child of negligent, alcoholic parents. Her father is dead now,
and her elderly mother is unable to care for herself.

Ron's alcoholic father abandoned his family 20 years ago. Now he is old and ill and desperately needs someone to help care for him.

Darlene was repeatedly molested by her father when she was growing up. Her mother didn't intervene. Now old and widowed, this same mother who didn't protect her daughter now expects Darlene to care for her.

These true stories appear in a new book by Eleanor Cade called Taking Care of Parents Who Didn't Take Care of You (Hazelden, September 2002). Every year, more and more adult children of abusive, neglectful or absent parents are faced with the dilemma of whether or how to care for their elderly parents. Cade offers compassionate and practical advice to individuals who make the choice to care for difficult parents.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, more than 22 million households provided care to an aged person in 1998. While it is challenging enough for most adults to contemplate caring for elderly parents they adore, that thought could paralyze adult children of dysfunctional parents. In some cases, the degree of family dysfunction and abuse was so extreme or hurtful that adult children cannot be expected to care for their aging parents. In other cases, adult children decide to take on the difficult role of caregiver.

While caregivers might be returning to the family landscape in a new adult capacity, it is important for them to realize that old issues and emotions can easily resurface. They may feel like young children again, filled with the confusion, fear, and grief they felt all those years ago. It is no easy task to navigate the former battleground of family without resentment, while trying to muster up some compassion for an aging and failing parent.

The challenge, says Cade, is for caregivers to make sure they are responding to the situation, not their emotions. It is important, she says, to be flexible enough to recognize that negative thoughts and positive actions can co- exist. She says that being flexible also means adapting and changing our caregiver role as need be, understanding that good caregiving requires diplomacy, outside support, and a practical network of assistance.

That assistance can come in the form of Twelve Step support groups like Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics. Nursing homes, hospitals, or other care facilities may also offer support groups or other services and information for caregivers. Another good resource is the Family Caregiver Alliance Web site at Caregivers can also find a host of information and support at, an interactive site that allows caregivers to share experiences, information, and successes.

It is crucial for caregivers to take good care of themselves as they go about their caregiving duties. Cade advises that caregivers exercise, eat nutritious meals, abstain from using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, and get enough sleep. She stresses that caregivers carve out time for partners, children, and friends in order to keep their lives in healthy balance.

Cade also says that as difficult as it might be for those who grew up with rigid boundaries or no boundaries at all, it is important that caregivers establish boundaries with sick parents, dysfunctional family members, and themselves. This might mean limiting visits, not taking phone calls after a certain time, and deciding for oneself what is reasonable or possible.

Ideally, this journey of compassion will help caregivers achieve peace within themselves and with their pasts. "Making peace is not about our parents, it's about us," writes Cade. "We're ready to move on, ready to forge a different relationship."

Sometimes that new relationship is with the aging parents themselves who, as they approach death, are able to communicate with their children in new and healthy ways. However, parents may not change, but future family dynamics still can. As Cade says, "We have the chance to break the cycle of our childhood experience, to let go of whatever neglect and inattention we suffered, and to begin a new era in our family's history."

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