4084150618_a3b59d4ed1An article this week on The New York Times’s New Old Age blog reported on a study that has established an increased rate of depression (compared with a control group) in those caring for parents who were abusive to them when they were children. A distinct difference was discovered between people who care for non-abusive parents and those whose parents have abused them physically, verbally, or through neglect. This finding is significant, because though it’s well known that the role of caretaker to an elderly person can be stressful even in the best of circumstances, The Times’s Paula Span reports that tending to abusive parents represents a demonstrated risk to emotional health.

To a certain extent, the study that Span cites, published online in November in the journal The Gerontologist, confirms what most psychologists would predict. Close contact with parents who have mistreated you will likely lead to a reactivation of feelings, memories, and conflicts from the past. Even the offspring of such parents who believe they have successfully put the past behind them find that re-establishing frequent contact may reawaken demons.

Not only is the revival of past memories and feelings a danger, but (as any married person will tell you) we are prone to have repeating patterns of interaction in our close relationships—patterns that can be ignited as if by autopilot. Finding yourself in close proximity to an important figure from your past may not just reignite old feelings; it can literally push the reset button so that the old patterns of the past are reenacted.This can mean reviving a pattern in which you are a needy, vulnerable child trying to tame an abusive parent, or trying to interest a neglectful one, as if it were “just yesterday” instead of 50 years later.

As if that were not discouraging enough, it’s important to consider that negative traits do not tend to improve or disappear with age. On the contrary: Unhappy, unkind, or selfish people tend to become worse as they age. Negative traits are magnified by the insults of old age. Also, the addition of pain, drugs, confusion, fear (often, all of the above) can all contribute to a situation in which a badly behaved person will be at his or her worst. As one friend who was taking care of her narcissistic, self-involved mother as she was dying said, “the situation is devolving from (her mother reenacting) her personal version of Sunset Boulevard to (a much worse) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Nevertheless, like my friend, some people choose to stick by these parents. For some it remains hard to escape the primitive (though often unconscious) feeling that you need this person, and if you just try a little harder, your parent will love/treat/recognize you as you have always wished. The Times writer, Paula Span, reports on responses she got from readers to an earlier column about this issue. Some said “good riddance,” as did a man from Alaska who wrote, “I was glad not to see him anymore and relieved when he died.” Others wrote of feelings of responsibility or personal “codes” that prompted them to care for their parent(s) regardless of their past history. Both choices involve dangers: Choosing to keep the door closed can lead to feelings of guilt, whereas getting involved can subject you to being hurt once more at a point where you are most vulnerable.

In evaluating the choice of whether or not to care for someone who has not cared for you properly, important factors should guide your decision. The first task is to try to understand why you’re helping: Is it an attempt to finally repair the relationship and/or achieve some measure of reward that has been elusive? If so, know that this will not happen, and it is a dangerous, though understandable, motive. On the other hand, you can go into it with eyes open, knowing that you are approaching a likely thankless person. You may choose to do it because your own standards dictate that while some acts can never be forgiven, the person himself can be forgiven. This can be an act of grace for you, even if the abusive parent does not acknowledge the wrongdoing or ask for clemency.

Much depends on the individual situation and how you understand the past. If you see your parent as the victim of his or her own dreadful circumstances, it may be easier to find forgiveness. This does not negate your right to be angry at what you endured, but understanding why it happened can actually help relieve some of the pain, and even the anger. Letting go of anger can be a wonderful relief, even if the situation has never been resolved and your abusers are not entitled to forgiveness.

On the other hand, some parents need to be forgotten. Psychologists have often observed that the heinous parent, the one who makes it crystal clear that he or she is dangerous, is often easier to let go of than the one who is sometimes loving—or at least not always neglectful or abusive. That sort of “intermittent reinforcement” can be a powerful hook: “If I can just figure out the combination of behaviors that led to Mommy/Daddy being nice that time, maybe I can do it again and I’ll be all right.” This hope can keep one tied to an abusive parent in even the worst of circumstances. Children are entirely helpless as well as egocentric—the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget demonstrated that they don’t have the cognitive ability to understand another’s point of view. Kids think that the problem lies within them, not the parent. When a parent is perceived as dangerous, a child is in fear for her life because it is entirely in the parent’s hands—but she thinks it is her fault that she is being mistreated. Continued existence depends on attention from this parent, no matter how inadequate, so the child must do whatever she can to maintain the bond.

This explains why so many abused children (including some who are kidnapped) accept their lot, even when they may be able to escape it. As adults, however, we don’t have to re-engage with people who have done us harm. And the study above indicates that re-engaging may do us further damage. No longer the weaker or more vulnerable one, as grown-ups we have the option to care for or reject our parents. Which road we take is a very personal and complicated decision.

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  • Micki Suzanne January 24, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    This article was very comforting. When I was in my 20s I found out my father wasn’t my father, I was – in fact – a bastard.

    I continued to keep the family secret until my mother broke down and told me the truth. By then I was comfortable with the facts. No big deal. I’m her only child. I was worried because she was so upset.

    Well, she never stopped being upset.

    In the past 20 years she has become increasingly vocal about the “incident” that wrecked her life. Note that she remarried a successful man, has an easy life with the nicest house and cars in her small town.

    She hates my grandmother for having been the mother she was too young to be. (Gram died of dementia. She was the only unconditional love I’ve ever had.)

    Mom started telling me I was the product of a rape. I’ve met her friends from that time, I know better.

    She started exhibiting symptoms of memory loss two years ago. I pointed it out and insisted my stepfather take her to a neurologist. She has never forgiven me for that.

    Since then, her decline has been fairly frightening. She’s always been cold and reclusive … not a good combination for someone who wants to keep her faculties.

    Last summer I offered to drive up (1700 miles) and stay with her while he was out of town; he said no, she’d be fine. Sure enough, she “had another accident” and wound up in the hospital.

    I freaked and insisted on driving up to be with her and he said “She doesn’t want you there.” I cannot express how painful that remark was.

    But not as painful as our last conversation. She cannot live on her own and my stepfather is frail. A few days ago my stepbrother called and told her what I told him; that I would be there for her if/when my stepfather dies. All she has to do is call.

    I live in Florida for my health. I’m a freelance writer. My clients are here and I love my home, but I would drive up to help if she needed me. I couldn’t survive northern winters, but we could find someone to stay there for that. With me to help, she could stay in her home.

    She called in a rage and told me she doesn’t want me in her house because she knows I’m after her money. (This is not new. I’ve heard rumors to that effect through the grapevine.)

    My stepbrother has been telling me I need to be a better daughter. My last words to him were “you’re the son she never had and I’m the daughter she never wanted.”

    This is me closing both doors.

  • Barbara Thornbrough January 23, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    OH I forgot to say that Dr. Allen is my Doctor and she should be thanked for hitching me up with Women’s Voices For Change .
    She is a great Doctor and so thorough.

  • Barbara Thornbrough January 23, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    This is a wonderful article and has been sent by me to many friends who are dealing with older parents.
    My friends and I are now 70ish and we are all having problems with being the caregivers and upon occasion acting as the child we once were.
    Your article has made us all feel like we are not alone in some of the behavior we are exhibiting toward our parental units.
    Thanks for this article and an expansion of this would make a great book. Barbara

  • Mickey M. January 23, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Thank you for this excellent article. Its subject and content tie in with my relationship (or lack thereof) with my dad. My mom died in 1992. The article also underlined what is currently ongoing in the lives of my ‘baby’ sister and her offspring. Her oldest grandchild reported to her mother that her stepfather abused her sexually. He’s a charming, sometimes loving man, and I’ve witnessed his psychological abuse of my grandniece and he’s apparently a pedophile. The article mentioned the loving sometimes, then abusive parent. Here is the perfect example. My grandniece loves this man and wanted to please him and then well it appears that her mother, my niece, doesn’t believe her or doesn’t want to believe her. Anyway, CPS hasn’t done much more than remove the daughters (3 of them, 2 not his) from the home. My grandniece lives with her grandmother, my sister, for now. Thank you so much for putting into words and giving voice to thoughts I’ve had in my head of all these events and the people involved.