Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

When Elderly Parents Are Abusive

Eight tactics to help caregivers deal with a toxic elderly parent.

Source: Pixabay

Attempting to take care of an abusive elderly parent is fraught with problems and limited options, more so now as family members shelter in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are some actions to take that can help create a safer caregiving experience.

Share what you are going through with others.

Accept that your parent(s) aren't going to change who they are.

Find community resources that can help you.

Engage using positive language with your parents.

Check-in with yourself—know your limitations on what you can handle.

Avoid arguing and retaliating with your parents.

Recognize the causes and reasons behind your parents' abusive behavior.

Embrace and be grateful for the good things in your life.

SAFE CARE is an acronym to help caregivers deal with the difficult situation of caregiving for an uncooperative, angry elderly parent. These eight actions are explained in more detail in this article.

When Caregivers Are Abused: Suzette's Story

Suzette worked from home, so when her 83-year-old mother had hip replacement surgery, she moved into her mother's house to take care of her. She worried about her mother living alone with rheumatoid arthritis and saw an opportunity to resolve their strained relationship.

When Suzette was growing up, her mother stayed busy with her job and personal interests. Any attention from her mother was often spiked with criticism. "Maybe she's changed," Suzette thought. "She really needs me now."

The emotional abuse started the morning after Suzette moved in when she brought her mother breakfast in bed. Her mother complained about the eggs and shoved the tray away. She told Suzette that she was worthless and couldn't even make a decent breakfast.

In the months that followed, her mother had periods of rage and verbal abuse. Suzette held out hope she would settle down and be more cooperative. But after six months of living with her mother, she couldn't take the abuse anymore. She wondered how much longer she would be able to tolerate this abuse.

Suzette hoped to find a solution by finding a senior home-care service and a nearby assisted living home, but her mother refused both options. She felt she had no choice but to stay with her mother and take the abuse.

How the Elderly Abuse Their Caregivers

There are many other others like Suzette who only want to help their parents. But caregiving can be dangerous to the caregiver's well-being when parents are angry, callous, and controlling. The types of abuse tactics that are commonly used include:

  • Yelling
  • Lying
  • Accusing
  • Excessive demands
  • Name-calling
  • Contempt

But know that there are more subtle types of abuse tactics that are commonly used, such as:

Even when parents use these tactics, many caregiving adults feel tremendous guilt if they leave their parents to fend for themselves.

How to Practice Safe Caregiving

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.

Accept that your parent most likely won't change. It is you that has to change. Practicing compassionate detachment gives you permission to protect yourself. Changing your perspective will help you avoid acting out of fear or insecurity. It will make it easier to release responsibility for your parent's reckless choices and let go of emotional involvement.

A more objective viewpoint means not getting hooked into the turmoil and allowing the abuser to change your thoughts, moods, and plans. When possible, let parents clean up their own messes with relationships, finances, health care, or household activities.

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.

Keep in mind that compassionate detachment does not mean you care less for your parents and what happens to them. Refuse to believe that taking care of yourself and setting personal limits is selfish.

Find community resources that can provide assistance and guidance. How do you intervene with elderly parents? Senior organizations like AARP or government agencies such as the U.S. Administration on Aging can connect you to services for older adults and their families. Research the location and costs of medical care, retirement homes, homecare, and emergency services, so you'll be prepared. Keep a list of these resources.

Have a backup plan and, if necessary, an exit plan in place. Tell your parents that if they cross the line with you, you have backup care coming, and you are leaving. Then follow through.

If possible, insist that your parents open a bank account in your name with funds you can draw on to take care of them and hire help with caregiving.

Recognize when it may be beyond your ability to handle the situation alone. Your elderly parent may be better off in an appropriate long-term care home.

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.

Counseling and support can provide validation, encouragement, and problem-solving strategies that will help you find some peace with your parents, even if they haven't changed.

Engage only in positive conversation. Avoid dysfunctional patterns of interaction in which you provoke each other, and the conversation quickly becomes contentious.

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.

Check-in with yourself about making the decision to be your parent's caregiver. Ask yourself if you are emotionally capable of caring for an abusive parent. Be introspective about what you are feeling and how it's affecting interaction with your parent.

Both parent and caregiver may suffer from lifelong emotional baggage that triggers trust issues, hurt feelings, frustrations, or long-simmering resentments.

For example, when your parent's unjust criticism of you causes you to doubt yourself, you could be perpetuating an old way of thinking that damages your self-esteem. Or, if your parent used guilt to control you while you were growing up, they are probably still using guilt, because it works.

If you've always had a troubled relationship, it's not likely to get better. Improving a relationship requires both individuals to gain a deeper understanding of their own psychological issues and work on resolving those issues.

Certainly, psychological issues are no excuse for abusing others. Individuals who lack character strength and emotional maturity may choose to be abusive instead of facing their own emotional pain.

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.

However, medical intervention is necessary when abuse rises to an imminent life-threatening danger to either parent or caregiver. When parents respond by harming themselves, you must let go of feeling responsible for their actions.

Try to find the love in your relationship and the ways you can enjoy each other's company. Spending quality time together may result in less enmity and more positive interaction.

Avoid retaliating against your parent with insensitive or abusive treatment. Fighting abuse with abuse only creates more problems. Walk away and take some deep breaths when you feel anger coming on.

Slow, abdominal breathing can lower stress reactions, such as an elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and help you keep a calm head.

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?

Your good intentions may actually frustrate your parent and, in the absence of effective coping skills, cause them to act out in disturbing ways. Realize that underlying the abuse may be a desperate call for help.

Recognize the roots of abuse. What's behind the outburst?

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.

Elderly abusers also could have untreated mental health issues, chronic pain, or cognitive decline as a result of a medical condition, such as stroke, dementia, or substance abuse, that affects their behavior.

As parts of the brain deteriorate, emotions can become extreme. Previously gentle personalities can become stubborn and argumentative. There may be memory loss, confusion, paranoia, or a limited ability to understand fantasy from reality.

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.

Your partner and your children need you to be present in their lives too. Don't let anyone weaken your resolve to protect your emotional and physical health and that of your own family.

Practicing SAFE CARE won't provide ideal solutions to the dilemma of caring for an abusive elderly parent. Family relationships can be complicated. Everyone's experience is different, some worse than others. But these guidelines can help you find safer ways to care for your parent and take care of yourself at the same time.

What's your story with an abusive elderly parent? What are your caregiving challenges? Future posts can address your suggestions for topics that will help you practice safe care.