Why Would An Aging Parent Say That?

A reoccurring theme in caregiver support groups is disparaging and derogatory comments made by aging parents to their adult children who are struggling to do the right thing. Voicing anger and bitterness about how their life has turned out, these personal attacks deeply wound the very person who is struggling to protect and care for them. “Why would they say that?” these caregivers ask over and over again. Indeed, why would they?

While each situation is unique, most of these painful scenarios share a common back-story of failed expectations from the aging parent’s perspective. As such, they are tales of people and events that are clearly responsible for their current misery. These stories always blame “others” and are never the responsibility of the aging parent. Sadly, the brunt of the retribution for this poor outcome falls on the caregiver who winds up the loser in a zero sum game.

Ironically, the aging parent’s perspective is only part of the game’s deception. Caregivers caught up in this toxic dance usually harbor their own set of expectations that perpetuate the dysfunctional engagement. Out of loyalty, duty and love, they truly believe that it is within their power, on some level, to find a way to make an aging parent happy. The stories of their quest to find the elusive answer are filled with false starts, extraordinary sacrifice and painful rejections. But in the end, nothing works because there never was an answer.

Most adult children caught up in this don’t want to believe the game is rigged. Instead, they want to be a change agent whose heroic efforts save the day. Unfortunately, none of us possess the ability to change anyone, least of all our parents. While we have deep empathy for their sad circumstances and would go to great lengths to reduce their suffering, their punitive expectations are never ours to repair.

This disturbing insight is difficult to accept. It rejects the myth that adult children have unique powers for changing who their aging parents have become. In this regard, it declares that the game is set in stone. What isn’t set in stone is how adult children choose to respond to it.

Faced with this realization, caregivers have the option, however difficult, of revising their expectations about what is possible. The work is no longer about finding the non-existent secret to their aging parent’s happiness combined with the mythical approval for a job well done. It is a more healthy set of marching orders that continues to honor the commitment to provide compassionate care but is based on more realistic and self-protective goals.

This proves to be a monumental revision in the parent-child relationship that is easier said than done. Their life-long emotional advantage of parents over their children asserts itself with surprising force at any attempt to alter the game. This usually presents as dramatic outbursts, high-powered manipulations, and an escalation of derogatory comments. Dogged persistence and resilience are required to withstand this predictable and unpleasant pushback. Even then, it’s always a messy and unsatisfying process.

But armed with new expectations, the shame of never finding the impossible slowly begins to recede. While the bitter comments still hurt, little by little they begin to ring false and are seen for what they are, desperate attempts by an aging parent to shift the responsibility for his or her role in their situation. While the game continues, the choice to reject its premise and declare a different interpretation and response has altered its impact, a shift in the balance of power that comes none too soon for caregivers.