Taking Care Of Parents Who Didn't Take Care Of You

Taking care of elderly parents can be emotionally challenging under the best of circumstances. But when those parents had failed to care for their children in early life, that challenge can feel impossible. As part of Tell Me More’s weekly “Moms” segment, host Michel Martin discusses how to care for an abusive or neglectful parent with writer and regular parenting guest Leslie Morgan Steiner; Marion Somers, author of “Elder Care Made Easier”; and Eleanor Cade, author of “Taking Care of Parents Who Didn’t Take Care of You."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Normally, of course, we focus on caring for kids, but we have also been taking on the question of caring for seniors. With the Census Bureau projecting that the number of seniors will reach 72 million by the year 2030, more adult children are having to and, in many - maybe most - cases wanting to take care of those who take care of them.

But that got us to thinking, what if those parents did not take particularly good care of you? What if they were absent, negligent, even abusive? How then do you handle how to take on a task that is already emotionally and financially challenging?

Amazingly enough, Eleanor Cade has written a book about that very topic. It's called "Taking Care of Parents Who Didn't Take Care of You: Making Peace with Aging Parents." She's with us now.

Also joining us is Marion Somers. We call her Dr. Marion. She holds a doctorate and has worked in the geriatric care field for more than 30 years. She's the author of "Elder Care Made Easier."

With us as well is TELL ME MORE parenting regular, Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's the author of most recently, the memoir "Crazy Love." And we do feel a need to warn listeners who may be a little bit sensitive: We will be talking about difficult issues. The question of abuse may come up. So with that being said, I want to welcome you all. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ELEANOR CADE (Author, "Taking Care of Parents Who Didn't Take Care of You"): Thank you.

Dr. MARION SOMERS (Author, "Elder Care Made Easier"): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER ("Crazy Love"): Likewise.

MARTIN: And Dr. Marion, I'm going to start with you, because, as we've mentioned, you've been with us before to help guide us through these tricky issues and you've worked with, you know, literally thousands of families. How often has it come up that an adult child is ambivalent about taking on the caretaking role because the parent, perhaps both parents did not treat that child particularly well because they were abusive or negligent?

Dr. SOMERS: Far more often than one would think. A lot of things happen behind closed doors. And when an older person gets to the point of needing help and these issues have not been addressed either by the senior or their adult child, all of these issues come to the surface and manifest themselves in one way or the other.

MARTIN: And, Eleanor, how is the dynamic different for people who are taking care of parents who have been abusive or negligent?

Ms. CADE: Well, I think the first challenge is you soon realize that this is your last chance to make peace with this parent, find your way to some sort of acceptance with what was and accepting that they did the best they could, perhaps, and maybe that best was not all that great.

MARTIN: Leslie, why don't you pick up the ball from here? Because your mother recently left us, and I'm sorry for your loss.

Ms. STEINER: Yes.

MARTIN: But this was a difficult relationship. She was an alcoholic. And she -I think I can say this - verbally abusive to you. She became ill with cancer.

Ms. STEINER: Yes. My mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer last November. And she came to live with us in February for what turned out to be the last 10 weeks of her life. It was a relatively short period. And my relationship with my mother had always been emotionally complicated. She was there physically. And in fact, I dedicated "Crazy Love" to her because she was there for me during my marriage to an abusive man and my divorce from him, as she had always been physically there.

But the problem was emotional, and she was emotionally abusive. She would attack me. She was very unpredictable in the ways that she would attack me. When I was a young kid, I remember once she hit me during a sleepover with my best friend, in front of my friend. There was a girl's soccer party that I hosted where she got really drunk and she kept emptying the pot of water that we were trying to cook the spaghetti in. You know, in front of everybody, preventing us...

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. STEINER: Because she was drunk, and it was inexplicable. And then the worst was that when I was a teenage girl, she attacked my sexuality really viciously and publicly.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that?

Ms. STEINER: Well, quite specifically, she told me in front of many relatives and friends that the extended family's nickname for me was the Washington whore.

MARTIN: Oh, my God. I'm sorry.

Ms. STEINER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. STEINER: Because I was sexually active. I will never understand why she called me that, why she chose to do that in front of so many relatives. And also, you know, I wasn't the only kid in my family who was sexually active. I don't know why she targeted me. And I could never, I was so afraid of her and of confrontation, that I could never ask her she was a really hard person to come to peace with, especially because despite the fact that she was an alcoholic, I loved her really deeply. And it's hard to wrap your heart around loving somebody like that, somebody who repeatedly is abusive to you and hurts you.

MARTIN: But can I just ask, though? If could go back that, and I appreciate you being willing to share this with us because this is not easy to talk about, but why did you want to bring her into your home? A lot of people would say, forgive me, but there are those who would say you're trying to kind of recreate the relationship, to relive your childhood on your own terms or something like that and is that part of it?

Ms. STEINER: I don't think that's possible. And for me, maybe I think it would've been a huge disappointment, another disappointment for me if I had tried to have some kind of sentimental reconciliation with her. I didn't try to have that at all. It was always really real between us, even at the very end. So I didn't try to do that.

MARTIN: But why did you want to? Did you feel you had a duty or...

Ms. STEINER: No, I just wanted to care for her. It was a duty. It was an expression of my deep love for her. It was for her. It was for me. It was for my family. It was for the greater good in many ways, even though I'm not at all a saintly person, it was absolutely the right thing to do. And I tell you, I could not have lived with myself if I had not taken her in.

MARTIN: Eleanor, why don't you pick up with what we just heard from Leslie? I wanted to ask if there's ever a situation in which you suggest that somebody not take a parent into his or her home?

Ms. CADE: What Leslie did really speaks to her core values, that she could look in the mirror and say I did the best I could. And I think sometimes we do these things for ourselves as much as for our parent. The other thing I was going to say was that I began to think of care giving as a cycle, and that the - I like the idea of cycles because a cycle suggests a beginning and an end. And as we close and are there for the closing of our parent's life, it gives us the opportunity to start a new cycle with our children, and our spouse, our current family, our present family.

MARTIN: Dr. Marion, would you pick up the ball here? You're very good at sort of breaking things down into steps, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And say this is a process that you could go through to help you figure this out for yourself.

Dr. SOMERS: No matter what the circumstances are, you must always be honest with your own emotions. You can't make believe everything's hunky dory when it's not. So you start with that. And to me, there's no sense in going over all the would've, could've should'ves that could not be change at this part of history. And older person usually is fragile. They may be losing some of their capacity. Your own time constraints are going to be limited because you are now the caregiver not only working but taking care of your children and now you have a parent. Be realistic at all times and figure out what you can do. Can you move somebody into your home? Logistically is that possible? Emotionally is that possible? Who else is going to be impacted by your physically taking them in? And if you cannot do it, try not to deal with the sense of guilt or remorse or what have you. If they have to go to a facility because that is logically or emotionally the best thing to do, then do it. You must always be honest with yourself. So that's number one.

Number two, how is this going to affect everybody else in the family? It's not just you and your parent, no matter whether they were good, bad or indifferent, it's a whole gestalt that's going on, so you have to be realistic about everyone that's involved. And then you figure out what your capacities are as a human being. How much energy can you put out without putting your own health and well-being at risk? And in this process, you'll learn more about yourself. Always deal with what you can deal with and ask for help.

People very often are embarrassed or feel awkward about saying hey, my mother wasn't so good, or my parent did this, that and the other thing. My father was an alcoholic, my mother was an abuser and it took me years to figure out that they did the best they could with the intelligence and talents that they had. That simple sentence took me years to work out. So this is not an overnight phenomena. We do with what we can.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the challenge of caring for elderly parents who were difficult, negligent or even abusive.

Our guests are Eleanor Cade, author of the book "Taking Care of Parents Who Didn't Take Care of You: Making Peace With Aging Parents," Marion Somers, known as Dr. Marion, author of "Elder Care Made Easier," and our TELL ME MORE parenting conversation regular Leslie Morgan Steiner. She's the author of most recently "Crazy Love: A Memoir."

Let me raise another issue. And I'm going to this is an issue raised by one of our listeners, Colleen Seeley-Wahl(ph). She had an alcoholic father who left home when she was a child and she didn't have a relationship with him for years until he was in his 70s. And we talked to her at length earlier today. I'm just going to play just a short clip of our conversation with her. Here it is.

Ms. COLLEEN SEELEY-WAHL: I had been trying for years to maintain contact with him because quite honestly, I think I realized that we all are a product of our childhood and he didn't have a great childhood. And so as I watched, I felt so guilty putting him in a nursing home but that was the only chance. I needed it for his protection. And as that time went on, and he started drying out, I really saw that there was a really kind man under that alcoholic piece that he had with him.

MARTIN: Two questions I have here first of all. One is, many people in the elder care field will also recommend that you try to discern what the senior's wishes and preferences are before it becomes necessary to take over the care giving role. When you haven't had a relationship with the person how would you know? And how you sort out what's best for you versus what's best for that person, I'm just wondering how you sort out that. Leslie, how about you? You did have a relationship with your mother so this isn't really your situation, but...

Ms. STEINER: I did. But still, even when you have a relationship, it's incredibly hard to bring up these issues of what kind of end-of-life care they want, where they want to be. But we were really supported by the hospice system. And they encouraged me until the very end to give my mom as many choices as possible and to ask her if she wanted to be in our home. Our home is loud and noisy and chaotic and did she really want to be there. And we often checked in with her and she did always express that she wanted to be there. So I think that is important to ask, even if you don't have very much information about the person and they can't articulate it very well.

I also think, to get back to your question of why do we do this even in a complicated emotionally painful situation. And I think you can't underestimate the love between a parent and a child even when there has been a lot of absence or neglect or abuse. And in my case, I just it was the dominant thing that I loved her so much. And there's no amount of abuse that could take away that love in my situation.

And I also, I echo that you need to ask for help and take care of yourself and your family. And we were lucky that we had hospice. And we had one of the great things about the hospice system is that even in in-home hospice care you have a lot of visitors every single day. And so we had lots of hospice people who were really comfortable with death and dying telling me all the time that it was fine to have the noisy kids, you know, around her all the time.

And the first Friday night that my mom was there, my son had a sleepover with four teenaged boys, and I tell you my mom loved it. It was just like the house that she had raised us in and it was a comfort to me, but I - also, I've got to believe that it was a great comfort to her as well.

MARTIN: Sure. Marion what about this question of, you are also a big proponent in giving a senior choices, but when you come into a relationship with somebody who you have a very tenuous relationship with how do you recommend going to sort out something like with Colleen, who had to put her father into a nursing home? She barely knew him.

Dr. SOMERS: I think it's very important that you state how you feel at the moment. The senior is so involved with their own issues, their own health or their diminishing capacity that they are totally focused on themselves. And sometimes when you say to them, that's why I say keep the communication open and honest, when you say to them I'm being affected this way, my job is being affected, my family is being affected, my love life is being affected, whatever it is, you're bringing them into the reality of this two-way street. As far as they're concerned it's a one-way street. They need - it's not being selfish. They just need so much that they are focusing on themselves.

So when you bring up the conversation, whatever it is, whether it's past history, present kids sleeping over, you're allowing them choices and choices makes people feel like they're part of the real world and the now world.

The difficulty very often arises is when the person that you've had a hard time with or difficult relationship with is no longer here for you to process whatever your remaining issues are. And that's a time when you need to fully take care of themselves when that parent or parents are no longer here and you have unresolved issues. It's time to fully take care of yourself. No matter what the history is, don't go on a witch hunt which think could I have done? Should I have done? They should've done. Start the healing process from within and I know it's possible to heal no matter what the issues were you can be healed. You can be uplifted. You can be comforted.

MARTIN: You really believe that, Marion? You think that healing is possible?

Dr. SOMERS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I had a client who absolutely hated her mother and her mother equally hated her and I really tried to resolve it. So, you know, with a lot of work going back and forth. And at the mother's deathbed I said to the daughter, isn't there just one thing that you can honestly say about your mother that she did really, really well? And she said well, she always made Girl Scout cookies for the Girl Scout fundraising. So she said that to the mother. And the mother, who was really moments away from death's door, opened her eyes and she said, oh you really do love me. And maybe seven or eights minutes later the woman died.

And the daughter just I mean I'm getting goose bumps even thinking about it the daughter was just beside herself because she had never heard her mother utter the word love. And it never occurred to her that her mother needed the love as much as she needed the love. And in those few moments less than 10 minutes there was such resolution. There was such healing and the mother passed on and the daughter worked further to deal with her issues. But if she hadn't said that, she never would've had that magic moment of knowing her mother also needed love.

MARTIN: Leslie, do you have something to add here? Mm-hmm.

Ms. STEINER: You know, I think sometimes we in our culture romanticize the relationship between parents and kids, particularly when death comes around and you think that coming to peace with a parent is some great reconciliation. And you can't come to peace with somebody who doesn't want to admit that they did anything wrong or can't physiologically admit the terrible things that they inflicted on their own child.

MARTIN: It sounds like you did, because you said your mother never said she was sorry for all the stuff the mean stuff she said.

Ms. STEINER: It's true. But I think if I had held out for her to say she was sorry I never would have. I think part of what was finding peace was realizing that peace came from my own heart and it didn't necessarily have anything to do with her or confronting her or trying to get some sort of confession out of her. That was never ever going to work.

I think that one piece of advice that was wonderful for me to hear was that once the person dies, part of your grief, if you had a complicated relationship with them, is grieving that they're dead but also grieving for the relationship you never had with them. And for me, that was really true and to be very accepting of that was very helpful to me and I hope it's helpful to other people too, to realize that especially as a child, it's not necessarily your responsibility to get a reconciliation with a parent. Sometimes they cannot give it to you and you have to just accept part of peace is accepting them just as they are and that might be far from perfect.

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is a regular contributor to our parenting conversation. She's the author most recently of "Crazy Love: A Memoir." She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. We were also joined by Eleanor Cade. She's the author of the book "Taking Care of Parents Who Didn't Take Care of You: Making Peace With Aging Parents." She joined us from Chicago. Also with us, Marion Somers, she's known as Dr. Marion. She's author of "Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion's 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One." She joined us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City.

Ladies, I thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. CADE: My pleasure. Thank you.

Ms. STEINER: Thank you, Michel.

Dr. SOMERS: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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