Elder parents and caregiving: what if they abused you as a child?

By Cristian G. •  Updated: 09/30/22 •  6 min read

We are only as sick as our secrets. That’s a popular saying among many therapists and others who work with people who have led less than ideal lives.

One of those secrets is that many adult children were physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused by their parents.

Then the parents grow old, and often need assistance. Offering help to these parents, or even the decisions about whether to do so, is much trickier for the adult child who has struggled to overcome abuse issues.

These are their parents, and many people feel they should do something. But how?

During my years as a writer and speaker on caregiving issues, I’ve answered questions from people who struggle with issues stemming from childhood abuse.

These are good people who are watching their parents age. Most people want to love their parents. They’ve wanted their parents’ love all of their life. That’s natural and normal.

However, when people are raised by abusive parents, and then face the choice of whether to care for their aging parents in need, or to completely detach from the family, emotions get complicated.

Understanding the Roots of Abuse

If the abuse stemmed from a very dysfunctional time in family history when drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness or other issues ruled the family, but the issue was addressed and the family received help with healing, many people can form a close bond.

Some of these bonds are close enough to make the adult children want to help their aging elders. Some of these bonds are weaker, and the adult children need to find ways to help without taking full responsibility.

During the healing process, many adult children learn that their parents were also abused as children.

Abuse tends to be a family disease, whether it’s emotional or physical. The behavior often is handed down generation after generation until someone decides to stop it by getting help.

Because a parent suffered abuse as a child absolutely does not make it “okay” that this parent abuses his or her own children.

However, if professional help is sought and healing steps are taken, knowing that one’s parents were also abused children can often help the process.

Was the Abuse Addressed and Help Sought?

If the roots of the abuse are found and the abuse stopped, often, with help, the adult child feels more inclined to help the aging parent.

That makes sense to most people. What is more confusing to many, is that often the adult child still feels a need to help the aging parent, even if that parent has never admitted the abuse or sought help.

This is where the questions from readers come in. They wonder, “What do I owe may 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?”

These people are still in great pain, and suffer from conflicting emotions that go down to their very core as human beings. These are unresolved childhood issues coming to a head during a vulnerable time for the family.

Doing What You Can Without Doing Too Much

I’m not a medically qualified professional, so my thoughts are only those of a lay person who has listened to a lot of stories.

I’ve also had contact with professionals who have given me some insight. My suggestions to people with childhood abuse issues comes down to these tips:

Have you had counseling? If you’ve seen a counselor through the years, you may have found some peace with your parents, even if they haven’t changed. You may have learned coping mechanisms to help yourself be some sort of caregiver, without losing yourself in the process.

One mechanisms is leaning to detach with love. Detachment means that you will not react to your parents’ moods or abusive behavior. Part of detachment generally consists of having boundaries and setting new boundaries.

Having boundaries is about knowing in your heart what you’ll take from your elders and what is too much. Setting boundaries is letting them know plainly that you have these lines that can’t be crossed.

If boundaries are crossed – say your mom starts in again about what a slob you’ve been all of your life and how stupid you’ve always been – then you learn to detach and tell her that you won’t take that kind of talk anymore.

Have a backup plan, and if necessary, an exit plan, in place. At least for a time, until you see how the caregiving dynamic works, set up plans with an in-home agency or with people from a local block nurse or visiting agency, or with social services. Tell you parents that if they cross the line with you, you have backup care coming, and you are leaving. Then follow through.

If you’ve decided you do want to become a caregiver, give it a fair trial for both sides. It’s not too difficult for the human side of a previously abused adult child to sneak into caregiver enough that they, themselves can become an abuser. This behavior is not generally intentional, and therefore can be hard to spot in oneself. Taking frequent breaks from caregiving, continuing counseling, and even having a third party around, such as an agency worker, as you care for your parents, can help you determine if you can emotionally handle being a good caregiver.

If you see that your parents aren’t caring for themselves, yet you can’t step in, you can call their social services agency and ask them to do a welfare check. If your parents “pass” this check, then let it go for awhile. You did what you could. You can always call again, if you think there has been further deterioration in their abilities to care for themselves.

Determine if you can become emotionally involved at all. If no progress has been made through your adult years, and your parent or parents are still treating you in an abusive manner, you may want to fulfill what you view as your duty to care for your parents by contacting a guardianship agency. These agencies will handle your parents’ situation, however your parents need to be at a stage where they are incompetent to care for themselves before this legal action can be taken. For some people, this takes the load of unearned guilt off of them. They know there are options, should their parents become totally incapacitated.

Don’t allow guilt to enter the picture. It’s far better for you to stand back and let third parties care for your parents’ needs, no matter what friends, neighbors, and even other family members say, than for you to step back into an abusive situation that can undermine your emotional and/or physical health. It’s also better for your parents. Keeping your distance from caregiving, given the circumstances of your history, may keep you from passing on the abusive behavior that has created such havoc in your life. You may be the one to stop the cycle. That is something to be proud of.

Cristian G.