Abusive Mother Now Suffering Dementia and Needs My Care

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Reader’s Question

I can’t imagine I’m the only one facing this type of challenge, but I’ve never seen a question like this asked on this site before.

My mother was abusive to me. She was mostly mentally abusive, but the abuse escalated to physical abuse during my senior year of high school. When I was struggling to leave a nearly fatal abusive marriage with a toddler in tow, she and my step-father allowed us to stay in their basement apartment. But because I crossed a line with her (nothing serious like drugs, alcohol, gambling or about anything else understandable), my mother put me and my daughter on a Greyhound bus with only the clothes I could pack in one suitcase and paper bags and sent me back to friends who lived right next door to my maniac husband. That’s the background.

Now, mom has dementia, and it has worsened to the point where she isn’t doing much self-care. Dad is coping less and less well. I’ve brought the appropriate county agencies in to evaluate the situation. He’s been given a list of things to do but has done maybe two of them. Meanwhile, I’m beginning to see signs of neglect.

My mother’s care needs have gone well past what I can possibly physically manage. But the real issue for me is emotional. There is no way I can tend to all the care my mother needs and stay sane. Because of her history toward me, I have absolutely no desire to do even one more thing for the woman.

There must be others who have been abused by their parents then face what to do about their care in elder years. There’s the piece of me (as mom’s only child) who feels responsible for her care and the other piece that wants to run as far away as I can possibly get. I’d really like to walk away without feeling guilty, but don’t know if that’s possible. How do I cope with this inner conflict?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your situation is indeed complex, and there’s no simple answer. But there are some things you might want to consider.

You have already set aside some of your hurt feelings to take some actions on your mom’s behalf. You indicate that you’ve contacted all the necessary agencies and even helped lay out some duties for your father. What you probably haven’t done is to attach the appropriate value and merit to those actions.

Abused children often suffer from impaired self-esteem and distorted self-image. So, what’s really important to remember is that one’s self-respect is far more dependent upon what noble action one is willing to take, regardless of the emotional difficulty or ambivalence one might have for taking such action. And because you’re not likely to get the recognition you might crave from either of your parents, it’s crucial that you recognize the merit in the actions you’ve already taken.

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You haven’t given much information about just how capable your father is of stepping up to his responsibilities. You also haven’t mentioned the nature of the care services that are already being provided your mother. You are not obliged to go the extra mile if the mechanisms for essential levels of care are already in place. And if you do choose to go that extra mile, it is you, not your parents or anyone else, who is obliged to recognize the merits of your actions.

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