Coming Full Circle: Taking Care of Your Abusive Parent in Old Age

By Susan Cody

The New York Times Magazine online had a really interesting article written by psychiatrist Mark E. Agronin, M.D. who works with elderly residents, some of whom reside in nursing homes.

The elderly arrive, presumably to finish out their lives being cared for physically, medically, emotionally and socially by a qualified staff of caregivers.

Agronin provided insight in his article about the difficulties of dealing with the adult children of elderly parents they claim were abusive.

He's not doubting their stories. Child abuse is known to be rampant in this country. He talks about the changes seen once these parents become old and frail and the adult children are now strong and capable.

Gone is the frightening monster who hit, beat, sexually abused, or psychologically harmed their children. Now that abuser, be it the father or mother, is old, frail, weak and sometimes powerless.

The power has come down from parent to adult child. Some grown children simply walk away with orders not to be contacted until the parent dies. (Having worked in nursing facilities myself, I can attest to this.) Others visit only occasionally.

This can seem cruel to those on the outside. Picture an old, white-haired lady sitting placidly in her chair, calming watching television and thanking staff for her glass of water.

Then picture her forty years before, beating her children, forcing them into actions that would scar them for life, denying them food or proper shelter and using words that hurt even more than the belts and rods she used to beat them with. A woman with two lives, that only her children see.

Child abuse can lead to depression in adults, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and a host of other conditions, including brain changes, physical affects and changes in the way their immune system works.

According to an EmpowHER article that delves into the trauma that childhood abuse can cause, " Researchers who conducted a combined analysis of 26 studies involving more than 23,000 people found that those who suffered maltreatment as children were twice as likely as those who had normal childhoods to develop persistent and recurrent depression -- one of the world's most common and costly mental illnesses."

In the New York Times article, Agronin talks about one adult son who hoped that his allegedly abusive mother would receive basic care but who would also live out her life as a lonely, weak woman as a kind of passive payback.

The son wanted no further direct contact with his mother. This isn't unusual, according to the doctor.

He said, "Sometimes the most telling sign is the absence of a detailed personal history from the family members or friends who can provide it. But many times, these residents leave large wakes of emotionally injured family members who struggle with ambivalence, anger, angst or guilt when old age falls on the accused."

He also stated that the opposite can occur. In trying to give someone something they never got, adult children fuss to ensure the abusive elder gets excellent care. But he believes that neither method really works to allow the children peace of mind.

Sometimes, acknowledgement, apologies and forgiveness can occur, making it a positive situation all-round. But many times, though adult children's anger may be righteous, it often serves to only hurt themselves.

Instead, Agronin believes that "reinventing" the relationship as it is in the present, in order to help let the past go and work on the here and now, is a better option. It doesn't mean the past is forgotten, it means it is let go of, in order for both elder and caregiver to live the life they have now, without complications from past deeds.

He also suggested that many abused children really do want some kind of connection with their parents.

Apologies may never happen and that will have to be acknowledged. But what also can be acknowledged (whether elderly parents like it or not) is that the abused children were indeed affected -- that their personalities were irrevocably changed by that abuse, and that they feel how they feel because it genuinely happened.

Their feelings carry merit, and are valid. One cannot "get over" one's personality, brain function and future being altered from childhood neglect and abuse. But communication about this is perfectly acceptable, even if Mom or Dad don't want to hear it. Once that's completed, the relationship can continue as it is now in the present.

And in the end, if there is no resolution, the impacted child needs to accept the past and ultimately let it go. Therapy can help, especially if the abusive parent dies before any attempts can be made at resolution.


The New York Times Online. Health. The New Old Age. Struggling With an Abusive Aging Parent. By Mark E. Agronin, M.D. Web. Retrieved Wednesday August 22nd, 2012. Mental Health. Study links chronic depression to childhood abuse. Web. Retrieved Wednesday August 22nd, 2012.

Reviewed August 24, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith