How to Care for a Difficult Elderly Parent

Nearly every culture expects filial responsibility. It’s such an ordinary expectation that it seems like common sense: parents raise their children, and when they’re elderly or infirm, their children take care of them, returning their love and support. Twenty-eight states even have filial responsibility laws that can force children to financially support their elderly parents. 

But what happens to expectations of filial responsibility when children feel that they never received love and support from their parents, or that parental love and support had unfair conditions attached? What happens to those expectations when your relationship with your aging parent is difficult, uncomfortable, or painful? 

These are hard questions for children who have negative relationships with their parents. There are no easy answers, but as with all aspects of senior care, there are many possible options. 

“Once my parent needs care, can we mend our difficult relationship?”

Possibly. But don’t expect miracles. 

Your parent might have a fall, receive a cancer diagnosis, or begin displaying the symptoms of dementia – whatever the event is that makes you realize that your parent needs some level of care, it might be followed by the hope that in the last years of your mother or father’s life, they will mellow out, and you will come to some sort of truce, a peace in your relationship. 

The likelihood of this happening is extremely small. Your parent, whether they are gravely ill or struggling with the activities of daily life, will not become kinder or calmer. They might be frightened, confused, frustrated, or even angry, and these emotions will not make them mellow. You should expect that your parent’s personality will remain unchanged, and that some of the behaviours you find hurtful might even worsen. 

“I don’t always like my parent. How do I give him/her the best care?”

It’s always advisable to consult your parent about their own care preferences. But when your relationship with your parent is difficult, both of these actions become even more important. 

If you have a strained relationship with your mother or father, it’s possible that your communication is fairly limited. In this situation, it will not be easy to figure out their preferences when it comes to care, and you’ll have to be sure to ask. Perhaps your parent will make unreasonable demands that you cannot possibly fulfill, but all the same, listen to what they want. If your mother hates the idea of spending her afternoons at a senior centre, it will not help your relationship to insist that she goes without leaving room for discussion. 

“How do I care for a parent who didn’t care for me?”

As you try to implement your parent’s care, remember to take time to care for yourself. The stress of being a caregiver or trying to set up satisfactory care is hard in a healthy relationship, and can be painful in an unhealthy one. Allow yourself to take time to be frustrated and time to do acts of self-care. Talk to a friend or join a support group. If spending time with your parent brings up old negative feelings, consider speaking to a therapist. 

Care Options in Difficult Relationships

The care options for a parent with whom you have a difficult relationship are the same as those for the parent with whom you have a warm one. However, in a strained relationship, decisions about care might be informed by different factors. 

Here are some options you might consider when arranging care for your parent:

  1. The in-law suite

    The tradition of moving one’s parents into your family home has made a comeback in recent years as the Baby Boomer population ages. This practice has been made even easier by universal home design, which is becoming increasingly popular. 

    For some families, especially those with young children, this might seem like an easy and natural move. But in a family with complex relationships, living together is rarely a good idea. If your childhood was traumatic, you wouldn’t want to expose your children to the same environment. You likely don’t want your spouse to watch your daily fights with your parent. And your own mental health will undoubtedly suffer. Be honest with yourself, and acknowledge the possibility that moving mom or dad in may have negative consequences. 

  2. Assisted Living facilities

    This option might be a good choice for your parent if you’re concerned about their well-being on a daily basis but are unsure that living with them is the right decision. While you may have a negative relationship with them, it’s possible that they might formulate friendships in a facility, which will be beneficial for them and take some pressure off of you – you won’t be your father’s only person to talk to, which might relieve some of the stress in your relationship. There will also be caregivers available to help your parent, which will likely be a much better option than entering into the caregiving role yourself. 

  3. Home Care Services

    This option is also has many potential benefits for your parents. If your parent is particular or exacting, the personal nature of home care might be a great fit for them. In this situation, you know your parent is cared for, either for several hours each day or full time, depending on their needs. They will not have the same complicated past with their caregiver as they do with you, and therefore the likelihood of emerging tension is smaller. 

    There is one possible problem to look out for with this option, and that is the wellbeing of your caregiver. If your parent is particular about their food or their schedule, this is certainly something a caregiver can handle. But if your parent has a tendency to be nasty or cruel, they may target the caregiver in your absence. Make sure to explain your parent’s personality well to your caregiving agency, so they can match your mother or father with a caregiver who will be adept at handling any barbs, and make sure you inform the caregiver to notify you or the agency if your parent’s behaviour is upsetting to them. 

  4. nursing homes

    The nursing home is an option that few children want to consider for their parent – even if their relationship with their parent is difficult. Most of us feel as though we have failed in our duties in some way if we choose to place our parent in a nursing home. However, there are illnesses and challenges that make nursing homes the best possibility for care. If your parent has an illness like dementia, which may cause even more erratic or unkind behaviour, it is possible that they might need the full-time care a skilled nursing home can provide. If this is the decision you make, know that you considered all the options and made the best choice you could for your parent, fulfilling your filial duties to the best of your ability.  

Regardless of what choice you make for your parent, be sure to act, as one reluctant caregiving child suggests, in a manner that will let you be proud of how you treated your parent in the final years, months, or days of their life. No matter how difficult it might be to find peace with your parent, this will allow you to find peace with yourself. 

Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion’s 10 Steps to Help You Care for An Aging Loved One by Marion Somers (Addicus Books, 2006). 
  • Stages of Senior Care: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Making the Best Decisions by Paul and Lori Hogan (McGraw-Hill, 2009). 
  • Taking Care of Parents Who Didn’t Take Care of You: Making Peace with Aging Parents by Eleanor Cade (Hazelden, 2002). 

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