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Becoming a Caregiver When Your Parent Wasn't There for You

Setting boundaries is key when determining your role in your parent's care

By Julie Hayes and Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

Family caregiving is commonly viewed as an act of love. So much so that the phrase "caring for a loved one" is practically synonymous with family caregiving. But not every family experience is rooted in love. For example, children who have grown up with tense or even traumatic relationships with their parents may struggle with the expectation that they're supposed to provide care for someone who doesn't care for them.

An older adult with a family caregiver. Next Avenue, estranged family, caregiver
When determining the role you'll play in your parent's care, it's essential to set boundaries  |  Credit: Getty

"Not everyone comes into caregiving with ideal family dynamics," says Lauri Scharf, a care consultant with the Benjamin Rose Institute On Aging. "Maybe the caregiver's mom or dad had a mental health issue. Maybe they had an addiction. Maybe they didn't provide a loving home environment. Those situations can be difficult to transcend when a parent needs help."

Difficult, but not always impossible, Scharf adds. "In the past, you may not have had any control over your situation. But now you have a voice in how you can help and what you are and are not willing to do."

Delegate Tasks If Possible

When determining the role you'll play in your parent's care, it's essential to set boundaries. Some caregivers may prefer to take on tasks that don't involve a lot of direct interaction with their estranged parent — such as money management, arranging home care, or coordinating health appointments. Others may want to limit the amount of time and emotional energy they dedicate to their role.

"But now you have a voice in how you can help and what you are and are not willing to do."

"Finding boundaries and sticking to them is significant," says Scharf. "It may be easier on you to agree to call your mother to check in every other day rather than to be constantly in touch."

Delegating tasks can also help you maintain boundaries. "You don't have to do everything," says Scharf. "There are professionals out there that can be paid to assist. Other family members and friends might also be willing to step up. Even if the expectation is that you'll be taking the lead, you should recognize when it's not in your best interest to take on specific responsibilities for the sake of your mental health. When resources are available, there's no shame in turning a task over to someone else."

No matter your tasks, providing care for an estranged parent will likely evoke painful feelings and memories. These should not be neglected, or they will only complicate the situation.

"If you need counseling to work through your relationship with your parent and have been putting it off, maybe now is the time," Scharf says. "Both anger and guilt can be difficult to overcome, and they tend to be at the root of many relationships."

Building Teamwork From a Strained Relationship

Recently, the term 'care partners' has been used more and more to describe caregiving relationships. It evokes an image of two people working harmoniously together as a team to achieve a shared goal. 

"You can't change the past, but you can create a better future by acting in your parent's best interest and modeling behavior you can take pride in."

But for many, this image — and the concepts of partnership, teamwork, and harmony — is slightly better than an idealistic fantasy. Nonetheless, when it comes to caregiving, it's hard to achieve much without a bit of work together.

"When you see yourself as being on two different teams, that creates rivalries," says Scharf. "Teamwork isn't about always agreeing on everything. Just as you can set up boundaries as to what you're willing to do, your parent can have a say in what they're willing to do and accept."

"Clashing over these disagreements can only lead to headaches, so instead of getting bogged down in trying to change your parent's minds or even their attitude, look at the bigger picture of what you both want to accomplish. In the long run, you want to keep your parent healthy; you want to keep them safe," adds Scharf. 


Providing Quality Care Under Challenging Circumstances

Caregiving comes with a lot of effort attached. It can take away from personal time, put extra demands on your wallet, involve you in tasks you may have never done before, and occupy you until you feel exhausted. And it can be a lot for people to care for someone they deeply love too.

If your parent didn't put much effort into your care growing up or came up short when you needed them, it might feel tempting to do the same and give only as good as you got.

According to Scharf, "you can't force yourself to invest your heart; you can't expect old hurts to disappear. But that does not warrant continuing the cycle of hurt. You can't change the past, but you can create a better future by acting in your parent's best interest and modeling behavior you can take pride in."

This is, of course, easier said than done, which is why Scharf encourages using support teams and resources to stay empowered, recognizing that the "it takes a village" phrase also applies to helping older adults. 

In this light, Scharf recommends:

  • Turning to the community for information and referrals: Libraries, senior centers, faith communities, and your local Area Agency on Aging are just a few of the community centers that can guide the support in your area.
  • Looking into senior services and programs: Adult day programs, meal delivery services, home care, and transportation assistance can all help your parent continue to live well in the community. There are also support programs for caregivers, such as respite services and WeCare…Because You Do: a care coaching program designed to help caregivers with essential care planning.
  • Checking out disease-specific websites and organizations: Websites like the Alzheimer's Association or Parkinson's Foundation can help you learn more about your parent's specific condition and connect with resources tailored to their disease or chronic illness in mind.

"When it comes to caregiving, you don't have to reinvent the wheel," says Scharf. "There are many existing supports and opportunities for caregivers to take advantage of. First, however, you need to know where to look."

Julie Hayes
Julie Hayes, MS, is a Content Manager with Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging. In her role, she oversees the development of content for the organization's website, She also serves as a lead writer, editor and coordinator for the organization’s editorial partnerships with Guideposts and Active Daily Living. Read More
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