Ways to Care for a Parent Who Didn’t

Some 10 million older Americans need some kind of assistance to get through every day. Family members (mostly grown children) provide about 80 percent of that help. Lots of those adult children welcome the opportunity to give back to their parents a portion of the love and care they received as a child.

But what happens when an abusive or absent parent, now well along in years, turns to his or her adult child for help? How in the world do you care for an elderly mother or father who showed you no love, compassion or understanding when you were young?

A sense of moral obligation and love motivate many people to take care of such neglectful parents, but no law says that you must provide financial, emotional or physical assistance to a parent. Whatever you choose to do, it’s wise to be clear about expectations.

Providing care in the hopes of finally getting a parent’s approval or love may be a set-up for disappointment.

If you find yourself in this predicament, it’s more useful to attempt to understand the roots of your resentment, heal your old hurts and move toward forgiveness and acceptance.

Because angry feelings are far less painful than hurt feelings, many of us turn childhood disappointment, rejection, abandonment, humiliation, betrayal and abuse into angry resentment. Figuring out exactly what it was that hurt you so much when you were a child is the first step in letting go of the anger that stands between you and your elderly parent.

If you can answer “yes” to any of the following questions, your resentment and anger are providing a “reward” you can do without:

• Do I believe that by staying angry I am maintaining my principals and standards (thus not condoning what my parent did or did not do in the past)?

• Do I think that I must receive amends (apologies, special considerations) to compensate for the wrong I suffered and to stop feeling resentful?

• Does holding on to my resentment make me feel morally superior to my parent?

• Do I think I will be free of anger when my parent shows guilt?

• Do I think that anger is my only way to punish him or her?

• Do I believe that “letting go” of my anger means I am weak?

Admitting to yourself why you are holding on to resentment is courageous. It is also good for your health and the health of your other relationships.

A heart-to-heart talk with your elderly parent may lead to new understanding for both of you. Or perhaps it will help you finally realize that nothing will change, no matter what you do. The following are some guidelines for your attempts at finishing unfinished business and letting go of anger:

• Approach your parent with the understanding that you don’t know everything, and your elder probably had very limited power to do better at the time.

• Voice your hurt instead of your anger. It may feel safer to express anger instead of hurt, but anger is usually met with a heated, defensive response.

• Once you show your tender spots, you become more vulnerable. So make it short.

• Don’t expect a sea change. Rejoice in the smallest acknowledgement of wrongdoing, even if it’s only half-hearted.

• Acknowledge that the two of you will forever disagree on certain issues.

• Don’t regret that you didn’t or couldn’t express exactly what you wanted.

Anticipating or hoping that your older person will react to you positively will throw up a barrier to the good feeling you’re longing for. Approach your elder with a positive upbeat attitude — but don’t expect him or her to respond in the same way. Suspend your current viewpoints about your elder. No doubt your elder has had heartbreak, trauma and disappointment, too.

Try to insert yourself into your parent’s experience, imagining what he or she felt, feared or thought in the past. Being able to do this, even a little bit, helps increase empathy. Every situation is different, but empathy (the ability to appreciate another person’s suffering) is one doozy of a place to start. Whether it works is less important than the fact that you tried. The healing process begins when you make the attempt.

Repairing the deep-seated hurts and anger between an elderly parent and grown child can occur as the end of life approaches, but it doesn’t always happen. On the brighter side, the experience of forgiving a parent — and expressing long-buried questions and feelings — may be one of the most satisfying experiences of your life.

Letting go of years of anger and underlying hurt takes time. The following steps can help speed the process:

• Share your feelings with a support group. You’ll likely be surprised that others have similar experiences.

• See a professional counselor.

• Share your thoughts with someone you know is understanding and a good listener.

• Seek religious guidance.

• Try to understand what shaped your parent to behave as he or she did. Inviting the opinions and viewpoints of others can give you a fresh perspective.

• And finally, don’t expect anything to change. Just hope for it.

Should the words “forgive me” or “I’m proud of you” not come as you hoped, you can say to yourself and your parent, “I regret that we have had our problems.”

It’s true and it’s tender, and most of all, it’s nonblaming — a fact that may open up possibilities in the days to come.

Dr. Rachelle Zukerman, a Fulbright scholar and gerontologist, is the author of the 2003 book, “Eldercare for Dummies.”