Detaching With Love: Setting Boundaries in Toxic Relationships

When the family member we are trying to care for is impossible to please, it's often because of long-standing family dynamics. I'm not talking about someone in intolerable pain, or someone who has little control over their brain because of dementia or Alzheimer's. In those cases, we often need to get the help of professionals, whether it's hospice care for end-of-life pain or a memory unit for Alzheimer's patients who may not be safe at home.

However, many caregivers on this forum talk about caring for parents who have abused them for a lifetime. Aging, and the problems that come with it, has only made this abuse more intense. No, your parents may not be able to hit you anymore, but that loss of physical control for them sometimes can make their tongues an even stronger weapon.

Yet, it's natural for adult children to love their parents and even want to care for them as they age. If your parents abused you when you were a child, how do you care for them without harming yourself by being subjected to ongoing criticism and abuse?

Many counselors would suggest "detaching with love." Detaching is a method of setting boundaries to protect yourself. It can also mean that you give up the notion that you can control their behavior, and you stop allowing them to control yours. It's hard. It takes practice. But for many, detaching works.

One thing that can help is to realize that the little kid inside of us most likely still wants our parents' approval. When we can't get that, even as adult caregivers, it hurts. To cope with those needs, it often helps to learn the techniques of detachment.

People detach by learning to understand that they can't control their parents (or spouse), so they stop trying. Sometimes, just this step makes a difference, as the person who has been pushing your buttons - making you angry because he or she knows your triggers – starts to see it doesn't work. Detaching with love means that you affirm that you love the person, but will no longer tolerate being treated with meanness or disrespect.

You set boundaries and make them clear. If the parent continues to complain just to see your reaction or to manipulate you, criticize your every move and generally abuse you verbally, you tell them you will get someone else to take care of them until you both cool off.

This takes some planning, especially if the parent is truly in need of constant care. You may need to set up an in-home service for few hours a week, then see what you can do to call them on an as-needed basis. This can be tough, but if you call around you may find a service available.

How to Get Help for Critical or Abusive Parents

If your situation is truly intolerable, Social Services may have to step in. The main thing is, don't waver. If you tell your abusive elder you are setting boundaries and you will call for help and then leave them for a time, do it. It may only take one or two times before the cycle is broken, though if the dynamics are life-long, it could take much longer.

You may need regular respite care to get away from this behavior often enough to take care of your own needs. One thing to be aware of is that many abused children become abusers themselves. This can carry over into elder abuse. Putting an end to this problem by setting clear boundaries, calling in reinforcements, and carrying through by letting others take over the caregiving role when you need respite, could be vital to you and your elder. You don't want to be a person who "loses it" after being pushed too far by a life-long abuse situation. You don't want to return abuse. If you recognize abusive feelings surfacing in yourself while you are caring for someone, get help. Stop the cycle as soon as you can by having someone else take over.

Occasionally, the situation is so severe that you, the caregiver, may need to turn your parents over to a guardianship organization. In that way, a non-family member is in charge. You can visit and see to as much care as you can without letting yourself become a victim of more abuse. This is a difficult step, but in some cases it's the only way out of the abuse cycle.

Counseling can help enormously if you find yourself in this situation. Turning your parents over to the care of others and then feeling guilty about it won't help you. Discovering the roots of the problem may. Caring for elders is hard enough when they are just cranky or demanding because of aging, loss, and health issues. When they are truly abusive, and the situation is long-standing, caregivers really do need help.

Detaching with love doesn't have to be this dramatic, but it can be. Either way, following through with detachment and setting personal boundaries could help you weather caregiving in a safe and sane manner.

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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