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How To Deal With Abusive Elderly Parents – 8 Tips For Caregivers

caregiver being abused by elderly parentCaring for an elderly parent is tough enough but it’s made even tougher when that person you are caring for is abusive towards you. But don’t despair, you are not alone.  Psychotherapist Amy Lewis Bear, MS wrote about this topic and below are excerpts from her article published in PsychologyToday.com.

Here are some tips on how to deal with abusive elderly parents:

  1. Share what you are going through with others
  2. Accept that your parent(s) aren’t going to change who they are
  3. Find community resources that can help you
  4. Engage using positive language with your parents
  5. Check in with yourself – know your limitations on what you can handle
  6. Avoid arguing and retaliating with your parents
  7. Recognize the causes and reasons behind your parents’ abusive behavior
  8. Embrace and be grateful for the good things in your life
    Source – PsychologyToday.com

In her article, Ms. Bear goes into detail on each of these tips and how they can help you, as a caregiver, to understand, tolerate and deal with the senior person you are caring for – who is most likely your elderly parent.

How Do You Deal With Difficult Elderly Parents?

If you are struggling with caring for elderly parents who are difficult and oftentimes abusive – then please understand that you are more than likely not the target in their anger and frustration. Although it certainly does often seem that way!

There are multiple factors involved that are the cause of all this angst and they can range from…

  • Physical and mental ailments such as Stroke, Parkinson’s, Dementia, Alzheimers, Chronic Pain and much more.
  • Medication can sometimes alter someone’s personality as well (for better or worse).
  • Emotional factors such as losing control of physical capabilities (difficulty with walking), mental capabilities (managing their own finances), loss of driving privileges, loss of their home or living situation, loss of friends, family, pets, etc.End of life issues such as regrets, anxiety over dying, depression, etc.

Understanding what issues are contributing to your elderly parents’ state of being will help you to cope with their nasty behaviors.

How The Elderly Abuse Their Caregivers

Many of us are aware of what emotional and physical abuse looks like. But the truth is, that there are many more, very subtle ways, that emotional abuse is perpetrated. Ms. Bear goes into great detail on these in her book From Charm To Harm: The Guide To Spotting, Naming and Stopping Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships.

Some of these subtle methods include:

  • manipulation
  • gaslighting
  • shaming
  • and many more

She touches on these in her article on the topic of caregiver abuse by elders – so let’s get into some of what she mentioned and how understanding them can help you to live through the caregiving phase of your life.

8 Tactics To Help You Deal With Toxic Elderly Parent(s)

I’ll give you a summary of the 8 tactics that Ms. Bear talks about in her article and in the video on this page. I’ve also included a quote from Ms. Bear’s article within each area.

1. Share Your Experiences With Others

One of the most important lessons I personally learned after my husband’s death was how very important it was to share my thoughts and feelings with as many people as I could find who would listen. I have to honestly thank the many friends who spent countless hours listening and comforting me.

This is YOUR time to share what you are going through with others!

Share your frustration with family and other confidants such as doctors, religious leaders, and friends and engage their help. Caregivers are at risk for social isolation, anxiety and depression, even more so when caring for an abusive parent. They need to be heard and taken seriously.

2. Accept Your Parents’ Faults

Every single one of us has faults – no one is perfect. But yes, some are more flawed than others – that’s just how it is.

Accepting your parents for who they are – accepting the fact that they likely won’t change will go a long way in helping you to cope with their behavior.

The truth of the matter is that it’s YOU (the caregiver) who has to change how you interact with your elderly loved one. Changing how you react to their bad behavior may actually help to reduce that specific behavior.

When caregivers don’t enable abuse, there is a higher probability that abusers will change, because their tactics aren’t as successful. However, don’t be surprised if parents initially try to gain back control with harsh reactions to you removing yourself from their influence.

The past history you have with your elderly parent will play a big role this tactic. If you had a tumultuous childhood then you may have to learn to forgive and let go of some of those issues.

3. Find Your Community Resources That Can Help You

One issue I’ve noticed with many of my friends and family who are caring for their elderly parents is that they don’t seek outside help. I know it can be difficult to let others in to our worlds but honestly, there are SO many others in the exact same situation that you are in – it’s time to join that group and get the help you need!

Consider going to a qualified counselor and join a caregiver support group. During the pandemic, many counselors are offering long-distance counseling, and there are online caregiver support groups as well.

There are MANY resources available to caregivers these days – I encourage you to take advantage of them:

  • Your friends and family are the first place to start – see if you can schedule time for them to come help you and give you some time away.
  • Your church or other organization you belong to – is another area to look into. The truth is, most people want to help – they just don’t know how to help. So give them an assignment, ask for something. It could be that they take turns bringing you a meal every Wednesday night or spending time with your senior loved one Sunday morning or doing some shopping for you every now and then or simply just calling you every other day to check in and see how you are doing.
  • Social media programs like Facebook – offer support groups that you can join. These are great to vent and get recommendations from others in your same situation. It’s not as good as one-on-one conversations but it’s a good addition to venting to your friends and family.
  • Professional support groups and organizations like the Eldercare Locator – who can connect you to services in your area that may be able to help you.
  • Hospice – another great professional support group that many caregivers tend to forget. Don’t fall into the trap thinking that Hospice is ONLY for those who are immediately dying. There are many wonderful support services that this program can provide you with for a very long time so do yourself a favor and give them a call to find out how they can assist you.

4. Engage In Positive “Talk” With Your Elderly Parents

This tactic can be difficult – I know that I found it very difficult at times to remain calm and positive when my mother would demean me while I was caring for her.

But – it’s important to at least try!

When a parent is abusive, don’t escalate the interaction by stepping into their circle of drama and control. Stay in your own emotional circle of loving family members and supportive friends. Participating in unproductive dialogue will only make the situation worse.

It’s true what Ms. Bear says -by engaging in negative conversation you are only feeding the monster and escalating the argument.

I used to simply walk away when my mother would turn nasty – I used to say that my mother didn’t mean to be mean, she just didn’t know how to be nice.

5. Check In With Yourself – Be Aware And Acknowledge Your Limitations

Basically, be honest with yourself – are you capable of managing your parents’ care? Emotionally? Physically? Financially?

Being a caregiver is an extremely difficult job and it’s not something that anyone (in my opinion) should do alone. You need help, you deserve help and it’s important that you accept help. Not only for your sake, but for your elderly parent as well.

Don’t make the situation any worse than what it already is.

This means….

  • being flexible
  • understanding that although your parent may be acting like a child – they are still adults
  • avoiding discussions that you know will escalate into arguments

When caregivers can’t escape from an abusive parent, they may have to take a harm-reduction approach that minimizes negative consequences. For example, if your father erupts into a fit of throwing, kicking, or hitting when denied a favorite, but unhealthy food, let him have it.

At the end of the day – it’s all the little things that we do each and every day with and for our elderly loved ones that will end up making the day a good one or a bad one.

6. Avoid Fighting With Your Elderly Parent

Of course, I understand that you can’t possibly avoid every single argument but you want to avoid them as much as possible. After all, most arguments don’t really resolve anything except to make everyone involved angrier and more frustrated with each other.

It’s extremely important for caregivers to be able to step away from an argument, take some deep breaths, do yoga, watch a movie, tend to the garden, whatever it is that you need to do to pull yourself out of the situation so that you can re-focus on look at the situation from an outside perspective.

With some introspection (and /or counseling), you may be surprised to find out that you perhaps are helping to create the angry situation in the first place!

You may think you’re on your best behavior, but take a closer look at how you’re treating your parent.

  • Are you making demands they can’t meet?

  • Are you taking the time to sit down with your parent and try to understand their feelings and preferences?

Knowing what you say and do and how that contributes to your parents’ behavior may help both of you to better cope with the situation you are in.

7. Recognize Where This Anger Is Coming From

Let’s face it – it’s very easy to get wrapped up in our emotions and lose sight of what’s REALLY happening in front of us.

When my mother would berate me for not cutting the onion correctly or not dusting properly (or any other activity I tried to do) it was easy to get angry and fight back with my own angry words.

What I learned as an Occupational Therapist working with elders is that trying to understand where that anger and criticism comes from can go along way in forgiving and letting go of your own anger.

Factors to consider are…

  • Are your parents treating you just like their parents treated them? Most likely, yes.
  • Are your parents suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or the effects of a Stroke that can all contribute to personality changes.
  • Are your parents feeling anxious, depressed, regretful as they are now facing that last few years of their life?
  • Are your parents in chronic pain (who wouldn’t be nasty if you are in constant pain?)
  • Is there substance abuse involved?
  • Did your parents suffer through some trauma in their lives that never resolved? (My mother lived through World War II in Italy – many years of hunger and bombings can alter someone!)

My point here is that there are many factors that contribute to someone’s behavior and understanding that (and possibly trying to speak with them about it) may help everyone.

Abuse tends to be a family disease that is handed down through generations until someone decides to stop it by getting help. Both parents and adult children who are caring for them could be victims of child abuse or molestation that were never addressed.

Of course, I understand that with someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s that is not possible.

8. Embrace The Good Things In Your Life

Gratitude is truly an amazing gift that you can give to yourself.

Months after my husband died I started writing down 5 things that I was grateful for every single night. A friend of mine suggested that to me and I have to say, at first, I didn’t think it was going to do anything but I knew that I needed to something to help me out of my funk.

I have to say – it totally worked.

Being grateful for things like my pets, the roof over my head, food in the fridge, my work, my clients, my friends and family, etc.

No matter how bad the day was (and we all have incredibly bad days every now and then) you can always find at least 5 things to be grateful for that day!

Ms. Bear also points out how important it is to embrace your family and friends, don’t ignore them or put them in second place just because you are caring for your senior parent.

Embrace your life and your own family. Don’t neglect yourself or other family members by spending too much time and energy caring for your parent. Undermining relationships with your loved ones to take care of a parent can cause harmful long-term effects.

I think she’s right.

One thing you can do is to create a schedule. If your elderly parent knows that you will be there with them from 9 am to 11 am every morning and again from 4 pm to 6 pm every night – then that will help to ease some of their anxiety.

You can schedule time with your own family as well as your elderly parent.

I know every person’s situation is different, but I do hope that these 8 tactics can help you as you work so very hard to care for your elderly parent, especially if they are abusive.

If you are seeking some one-on-one counseling – you can contact Amy Lewis Bear, MS for virtual counseling by emailing her or calling her at 404-592-1256. For more information about her services – visit her website at https://heartwisecounseling.com.

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