Elders Who Abuse The Relatives Who Are Taking Care of Them

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Why do elderly parents turn on the child that is trying so hard to take care of them?

Most of us have seen evidence of people being harder on the people they love than they are on strangers or even people they don't like. One example that comes to mind is a man that I have known. He was a jolly, good natured "good guy" in public, a salesman by trade, but a totally different person to his family – sullen, often angry and emotionally abusive. I've also known a couple of women who have admitted to behaving in a similar manner.

Families Take the Brunt of Elder Rage

It's not really news that people tend to be their worst with the people they love. Generally, this is thought to be the case because people feel safe enough with family to just "let it all hang out." Their anger at their circumstances, which may or may not have to do with these family members, is the real cause. Other times, the behavior is because the person has an abusive personality with deeper problems lurking.

Whatever the reason, it's not good. We owe the people we love our best selves. Not our "dressed for company" selves, but our compassionate, honest selves. However, most humans are very imperfect creatures. They will take out their frustrations on people they feel won't desert them.

Why do elderly parents turn on the child that is trying so hard to take care of them? This question came directly from the AgingCare.com support groups and it got many responses from people struggling with the same issue.

Why Do Elders Turn on the Caregiver?

My take on this is, unless the elders are people with personality disorder – which is a mental illness – they "turn on" the one adult child who is showing the most love by doing most of the care because they feel safe enough to do so. They don't consciously abuse this son or daughter, but they are frustrated and need to vent this frustration about getting old, having chronic pain, losing friends, having memory issues, being incontinent – all of the undignified things that can happen to us as we age. On a gut level, they trust that this caring person won't leave them.

The first step in handling abuse from an elderly parent is understand that the elder feels frustrated - like their independence is slipping away and death is right around the corner. Why wouldn't they feel frustrated? They suffer so much loss and feel every bit of it deeply. They see their own mortality written on the wall with only the date of death left blank. They feel humiliated and betrayed by their bodies. Does this make it right to lash out at the one person who is breaking her neck, and perhaps her marriage and bank account, to care for them? Absolutely not.

Don't Take Insults Personally

I think it helps if the caregiver can do her best to not take personally every insult. It also helps to be able to detach with love. My experiences with that kind of treatment don't stand up to many of the horror stories I read on the forum, but I was subjected to some pretty nasty treatment by my mother a few times.

She was a wonderful, loving person, at heart. But her escalating physical frailty and frustrating memory issues, coupled with other dementia problems such a losing the ability to make good decisions, would cause her to lash out at me.

There were times when I was nearly in tears by the time I left her after my daily visit to the nursing home. I'd had several family members in this home and knew the staff well. They knew me and they knew my mom. One day, when Mom was really nasty to me, the nurse, who couldn't help overhearing, told me to just skip a visiting day. I couldn't imagine carrying out her advice, so I ignored it. Things smoothed over, but eventually the same scene happened again. The nurse said once more, with emphasis, "Carol, just skip a day." This was a Sunday.

Sometimes You Have to Walk Away

That Monday morning I found I just could not make myself go to the nursing home for my daily visit. I didn't do this to be stubborn or to "show her." I was just hurt and exhausted. I knew Mom was well cared for by the staff. I gave myself a deserved day off. I didn't even call her on the phone.

When I went to visit on Tuesday, Mom was sweet as pie. I couldn't believe the difference. The nurse was right. I needed to stand up for myself. When my mom got verbally abusive, even though I understood that it was frustration with her situation that caused this behavior, I learned that I still needed to take care of myself. I (sort of) learned a tough lesson there. Even people with dementia can often sense when they have crossed the line. If the caregiver shows that she won't be treated in an abusive manner, the elder will often behave – at least for awhile.

This, of course, is harder if the parent and caregiver live together. However, if you are wounded enough by mistreatment, you can say that you are hiring an in-home caregiver to come in, since your company seems to not be agreeable to them. Then do it.

Research home care agencies ahead of time. Then when a day with your parents gets so bad that you need to take a stand, reach for the phone and say that you are calling the Whatever Agency to arrange for a substitute caregiver. Tell them that you are no longer taking abuse, and when they are in such a mood, you have relief arranged. Follow through, unless you see immediate results.

Find Backup and Take a Break

You never know. Maybe finding a little respite for yourself by getting help will allow your parents to gain a new appreciation for all you do, while still letting them see a new face. And you will get a breather. Maybe getting a little help would be good for everyone. Whatever you decide, you don't have to take abuse. If they become abusive, you can calmly say you won't be treated like that and walk away. If the elders can't be left alone, then you need to send for reinforcements. But most likely, when you stand up for yourself, acknowledging their pain and frustration, but saying that while those are things you can't fix, you are doing your best, and if that isn't good enough they will have to find someone else.

Be prepared, as bluffing won't work. Be kind, calm and stress your love. But be strong in your resolve. The philosophy I lived by - "please everyone no matter what it costs to me" - taught me some things I hope I will never forget. I have feelings and I count. My unending patience is not always a virtue. And taking a stand early on can help a great deal throughout the whole caregiving journey.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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372 Comments

Parents and children need to sit down and have a talk BEFORE the parent becomes elderly. I am 42 years old and have already told my daughter when the time comes to put me in a nursing home. Period.
I saw my mother's health fail due to taking care of her parents and later my dad. People are often guilted into doing so because they are told, "well, I changed your diapers, fed and bathed you." Well, it sure is easy to do that to a 10 pound baby moreso than a 200 pound adult who will fight you.
My grandparents saved a ton of money by using my mom. And yes, they used her to she almost dropped dead. They let a severe visually imparied woman with a ruptured disc and kidney problems fix their meals, wash their clothes, and wait on them like a daggone slave -- and heaven forbid she ever asked her brother to pitch in because "he had to work and couldn't be under stress." Oh, and he had two adorable children. Mom just had me. They even told her once that her brother would be horribly upset if something happened to HIS kids. Yeah, real nice.
My husband is now going through the same thing with his father. Same ungrateful, entitled, "keep you under my thumb" behavior. That is not love.
So in my opinion (and from firsthand experience), many of these people are not struggling with dementia, feeling safe to lash out at someone or any other mental problem -- they are MEAN and have been for decades. Many of these adult children have had little to do with their parents for years, only on holidays, graduations or birthdays and were treated horribly as children.
Unless you have a very unique relationship with your parent and you have gotten along well for 20-30 years -- do not be put in the caregiving role. That same controlling, abusive person is still there, just older and more bitter.
And if you DO have a great relationship, consider very carefully if you want to keep it. 24/7 caregiving is Hell on earth.
thank you. good encouragement; and good reminders. I have had to learn these lessons this year since January when we "moved-in" on my mother who is 93. It came as a shocking thing to her. But it was necessary until we could get her to move loser to my husband and I. The mother I was raised with was not like this. My mother is quick to accept anything from her friends - who are all in their 50's and very early 60's - younger than I - I am almost 70. But everything I say either needs to be corrected or dismissed by her. When she wants to make sure that I know something, she makes sure she is on the phone with a friend or has a friend visit and mentions the item to the friend; when I am within earshot. She never repeats the new information or decision she has made - such a moving closer to me - to me directly. Everything is manipulation. She can never directly ask for anything she wants. it is all a victim-mentality stance. I am also recuperating from adrenal exhaustion, simply because I erroneuosly was trying to make her life better. I now know that I cannot make her life better. It is what it is. My doctor actually told me I needed to dis-engage for my own sanity and physical well-being. My mom is in a safe environment, with caring professionals to help when she really needs it. I stopped calling her every night at 6:30. Her friends call her every night at 6:00. So my phone call was an intrusive problem for her. Now I only call if I have information to give her - doctor appointments, family events, etc. And I feel much better. It is such a sad thing to happen at the end of one's life - for all concerned.
Marialake-I hope you will follow the advice of emjo23 and seek placement for you MIL How does your tolerating her abuse lengthen her life or improve her quality of life? All this does is hurt you. I hope placement in a facility is an option.