Television moms and dads are kind, generous, clean, independent, and a source of wisdom. Real life moms and dads can be mean, self-centered, critical, and looking for a handout. Such is the cards some children are dealt.
These abusive moms and dads don’t miraculously turn into saints as they age, either. Most of the time the dysfunctional behavior they’ve exhibited worsens, rather than improves, as they age. If they’ve abused drugs, alcohol, or neglected their health, they may get much worse.
What to do when bad mom or bad dad (or both) are no longer functioning well at home alone? I don’t mean the not able to shovel out their driveway or lift the air conditioner out of the window type problems. I mean when they think strangers are coming in through the drainpipes and they think one of the intruders stole their gun. That scary not functioning well may be dementia.
Dementia is a broad term used to describe difficulties in the areas of language, judgment, behavior, thinking, and memory. Some causes of dementia, such as metabolic disorders and tumors, can be reversed. Other causes of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can only be slowed down, not cured. Repeat, not cured. Pay careful attention to the part of the happy pharmaceutical commercials that caution, “All patients will get worse over time, even if they take wondrous dementia drug.”
If you’ve had a great relationship with your parents, filled with mutual respect and assistance, it’s easy to say you’ll do whatever it takes to keep mom and dad safe. Even if it means moving them out of the home they’ve lived in for the last thirty years. Even if it means hiring someone to stay with them so they don’t burn the house down. Even if it means hiding the car or car keys to prevent them from driving to their favorite store that went out of business twenty years ago. Even if it means taking time off from work to accompany them to doctor’s appointments or leaving work early to rush home to deal with emergencies.
But if you haven’t had a great relationship with your parent, maybe haven’t even talked to them in five, ten, fifteen, or twenty plus years, what’s your responsibility when the neighbors start calling with their concerns? Do you forget the past and hope they’ll become nice? Put on your martyr uniform and hope for the best? Make an anonymous call to Elder Services and wash your hands of it?
There is no easy answer to these questions. Letting your conscience be your guide doesn’t mitigate the guilt that comes with the decision to keep your distance from a demented parent. If you decide to re-engage with the parent, there will still be the resentment that comes with putting your own life on hold to care for a parent who never cared for you. It’s an intensely personal decision that each adult child must wrestle with and decide based on all of the myriad considerations and individual details of their life. If you do decide to ride to the rescue, don’t expect the parent to be grateful for your efforts. Age doesn’t make people any less dick-ish, nor does dementia.
As someone who has wrestled with this issue, rest assured I don’t take my abandonment of my parent lightly. There’s a better than average chance that I am the best suited of my siblings for understanding and navigating the complexities of having someone declared incapable of making decisions to pave the way for admission to a nursing home. Not just because I’m a nurse, but also because I’m the oldest. Unfortunately I can’t forget or forgive the toxic parent-child relationship that ultimately ended with my decision to stop speaking to my parent over twenty years ago. I can’t let that go, even though part of me says it’s my duty and part of me feels incredibly guilty that I can’t caretake this person who can no longer caretake themselves.
I won’t deny that seeing my parent in their current state, even from a distance without saying a word or them being aware of my presence, breaks my heart. I wish I could find it within myself to soften, bend, and do what some would insist is the right thing. But I can’t.
And as much as I salute those who can, I acknowledge that there are those of us who can’t. Age and infirmity doesn’t turn a toxic parent into a saint, it only turns them into a old, sick toxic parent. Don’t judge me for turning my back. It’s like they say when you fly, if the oxygen mask drops down, you have to put it on yourself before you can help someone else. Unfortunately my parent has demonstrated that they would suck up all the oxygen in my world if they could. As bad as I feel about their condition, I won’t let them.
- Denial is Dangerous (alzheimersspeaks.wordpress.com)
- Alzheimer’s vs. Dementia: What’s The Difference? (blackdoctor.org)
- Narcissism v. Taking Care of Yourself – Lessons from a Flight Attendant? (theenlightenedjourney.me)
Thanks for another insightful, truthful article. I agree with your responses here.
Thank you for your honesty. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have toxic parents… but as we all know there are plenty of “toxic People” in the world… some of them have children. I do believe the first thing anyone has to do is to make sure they are safe, be that physically, emotionally, psychology…. I admire your willingness to share so openly and honestly as not all will understand. There is no manual to giving care and each person has to decide for themselves what is best for them within their own relationship.
So true, not everyone’s experience is the same.