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Not Only Nice People Get Old

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We are only as sick as our secrets. One of those secrets is that many adult children were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused by their parents. As I look back on my life as an adult, I feel that my father was bipolar. When he was in a good mood, he was the best father you could have. But when he was mean he was very verbally abusive to our whole family. In dealing with people during my 50 years as a priest, I have discovered that my troubled situation at home was shared by many others.

These parents grow old and need assistance. Offering help to these parents is most difficult for an adult child who has suffered from a lifetime of abuse. But you are only given two parents and many people feel they should do something to help. But what…and how? At 83-years of age, my father became paralyzed for 15 months from his waist down before he died. When I and others were raised by a parent who was abusive, emotions get complicated when you have to care for a parent in need.

Very often the abuse was rooted in the parent’s family history, because of alcohol, drug abuse, or mental illness. Abuse tends to be a family disease, whether it’s emotional or physical. The behavior is often handed down from generation to generation until someone decides to break the chain.

When my father was 75-years old I asked him if his parents ever told him that they loved him or that he was special. My father said I must be crazy, there were 6 kids in his family and if his parents said that to one, they would have had to say it to all of them. My father’s behavior dramatically changed after he was paralyzed from the waist down. In his hospital or nursing home bed he could hardly stop saying I love you!” to me along with family and friends.

Many of the people I have talked to as well as myself, have wondered: “What do I owe my parents?” They ask, “How can I open myself up for more abuse, yet how can I ignore them in their old age? They are still my parents.” Adult children are still in great pain and suffer from conflicting emotions that go down to their very core as human beings. These unresolved childhood issues come to a head during a most trying time. Here are 10 tips that have worked for me and for others:

1. Talk to a counsellor, priest or minister. I have found that to have someone sincerely listen to you and what you are going through is very healing. The ears of a caring person do help with the healing. Another person can help with coping mechanisms and help you preserve your sanity.

2. Many counselors suggest “detaching with love.” Detaching is a method of setting boundaries to protect yourself by creating an emotional distance for the actions or words of another person. Detachment means that you will not react to your parents’ moods or abusive behavior. This is hard and it takes practice, but detaching works for many in this situation.

3. When you have boundaries, you know in your heart what you will take from your parent and what is too much to take. When you set boundaries you let them know plainly that you have lines that can’t be crossed. Twenty years before my father died he put me in a “no-win” situation. If I called him, he said I was bothering him. If I didn’t call him, it was because he said I didn’t care. He would not let me talk with him. So I wrote him a loving, straightforward letter that spelled out boundaries. He read it and for the last 20 years of his life our relationship improved. I have recommended this to many people to do over the years. Sometimes, one-way communication is better than two-way or no-way communication.

4. If boundaries are crossed and your mother starts in on you about how bad you have been all your life and how stupid you have been, then you learn to detach yourself and tell her that you won’t take that kind of talk anymore.

5. Have a backup plan or an exit plan in place. Talk to an in-home agency or visiting social services. Speak with other family members about a backup plan if possible. Let your parent know that if they cross the line, you have a backup plan and you are leaving. Be sure to stick with the plan.

6. If no progress is being made and you are still being treated in an abusive way, you may want to fulfill your duty to care for your parents by contacting a guardianship agency. These agencies will handle your parents’ situation. But your parent will have to be at a stage where they are incompetent to care for themselves before this legal action can be taken.

7. Don’t allow guilt to take over your inner life. Years ago a woman dropped me a note. She wrote, They say that love makes the world go round. I don’t believe it. Guilt makes the world go round!” So often we do things not out of love, but because we’d feel guilty if we didn’t do them. It is better for you to stand back and let third parties care for your parent so that you can physically and emotionally survive. You can’t let what family members, neighbors and friends say get to you. You may well be the person needed to break the family cycle of abuse that has gone on for generations.

8. Just because your parents raised you, doesn’t mean that you have to give up your life to take care of them. You have yourself in life and if nobody else understands that – God does.

9. You may not have had the best parents, but you tried your best to do the right thing for them as the Bible says to honor them. You honored them for giving you life. You forgave them for doing what they thought was right at the time. That is what love is all about. Forgiveness is what cleanses your soul.

10. One person has commented: “We don’t really owe our parents anything but forgiveness.”

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