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Caring for someone who never cared for you

What would you do if a parent has been mean, unloving or even abusive towards you as a child and now they find themselves in need for care due to old age? Would you overcome your feelings of anger, resentment and bitterness towards them?

Many adult children face this problem and the sense of guilt/judgement that comes with an unwillingness to care for a parent.

Becoming a part-time or full-time carer is hard work and takes its toll. I think it takes a special kind of person to become a professional carer. Having bonds of love and affection can make it easier to care for a parent. You may even see it as your duty, seeing that they cared for you when you were young and through your impossible teenage years and now you are returning the favour. But what if a parent didn't do right by you throughout your childhood and awkward adolescence phase. They might have even caused psychological or physical harm which took you years to put behind you if you were lucky. What is a fair reason to turn your back on your parents when they need you?

A friend has described her to have been “a violent and terrifying presence” in her childhood. She later also confessed that her father had sexually abused her. She has managed to heal her wounds, but it has taken a lot of tough years with psychological work to get to a healthy mental state. Throughout the process, she has also broken off all contact with her siblings and him.

Despite all this, she is now fighting feelings of guilt for not reconnecting and keeping her distance now that he is over 80. While she doesn't see or speak him, she often thinks about him when she sees someone around his age at the local shops or crossing a street. "Maybe it’s the ‘inner child’ who still loves and wants the very best for my dad,” she told me. “…It’s confusing to me how much I care about the well-being of someone I despise so much.”

 Ara Cresswell, (CEO of Carers Australia) says it can take years for adult children to open up about the confused and angry feelings they hold towards the parents they’re caring for. “It’s rare I’ll meet a carer who says she’s caring for her father – ’that old bastard.’” When she found out that a carer had been raped by her father in her childhood and now was looking after him in her home, she was shocked. “I couldn’t be so kind,” she said. “I couldn’t do it. This is an important subject for carers to talk about.”

Maybe a sense of self-preservation is what steers some people away from an elderly parent regardless of what people, including family, friends and nursing home staff, might think of them. There have been some studies on this topic, one of them which is called, Caring for My Abuser, found carers who did look after parents who’d been violent or neglectful were much more prone to depression than caregivers who had not been maltreated. Of the 1,000 carers surveyed, 18 per cent had been subject to physical, verbal or sexual abuse in childhood and 9% said they had been neglected. Even when carers had overcome the trauma of their childhood experience, their now-aged parents “could be challenging people to care for, or may still be abusive to their adult children,” the authors found.

I think people can be more forgiving of parents who neglected them rather than abused them, by no means easy but maybe slightly more manageable. But who am I to make that assumption...

She said it was easy for others to judge. What sort of person wouldn’t care for an ageing parent? But when a parent has not been a caring parent, how can you be a caring child?

In some cases, families estranged over abuse issues are thrown back together when there’s no-one else to care for an ageing parent. “Effectively one can feel trapped,” said Dr Kezelman, “trapped in a role which is challenging at best of times but all the more so because of the intensity of emotions engendered by a childhood devoid of love and care.”

My friend will nor feel trapped. She's feeling a sense of pride for stepping away from her dad and sticking to her guns. “I’m much healthier emotionally and psychologically without him poisoning my daily life,” she said.


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