Making the choice to walk away from an aging parent in need of care and support is an incredibly difficult and emotionally painful decision. As adult children, we often feel obligated to provide and care for our parents as they enter their later years.
However, in some unfortunate situations, continuing an abusive or destructive relationship with an elderly parent may be more damaging than walking away.
Reasons for Walking Away
There are a few key reasons why an adult child may make the choice to walk away from an elderly parent:
a. Elder Abuse
If the elderly parent is emotionally, physically, or financially abusive towards their child, it may be necessary to create distance for self-protection. Adult children in abusive relationships often feel guilt and pressure to continue caring for their parent.
However, enduring repeated cycles of abuse can take an extreme emotional toll. At some point, it may be healthiest to create firm boundaries or even permanently sever the relationship.
2. Unsafe Living Conditions
In some cases, the elderly parent may be living in extremely unsuitable, hazardous, or filthy conditions that jeopardize their health and safety. Despite efforts to intervene, improve the situation, or relocate the parent, they may refuse to leave the unsafe environment.
If the parent rejects help and continues living in a severely neglected or dangerous home, the adult child may have no choice but to walk away for their own well-being.
3. Active Addiction
Caring for an elderly parent who is actively abusing drugs or alcohol can be challenging. Their addiction may fuel irrational behavior, verbal abuse, manipulation, neglect of self-care, and resistance to help.
If the parent remains in denial about their substance abuse and will not seek treatment, the adult child may need to distance themselves emotionally and physically from the toxic environment.
4. Mental Health Issues
Elderly parents suffering from severe untreated mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or narcissistic personality disorder often push away caregivers and reject help.
Caring for a parent with these issues can be emotionally draining and detrimental to the adult child’s mental health. If the parent refuses treatment and continues destructive behavior, walking away may be the only option.
Providing full-time care for an aging parent can present a significant financial burden, especially if the parent’s care needs are high or they cannot financially contribute to their care costs.
Without adequate financial resources, the strain of caregiving may negatively impact the adult child’s ability to support themselves and their own family.
The Decision to Walk Away
Choosing to walk away from an elderly parent is extremely difficult and complex. Here are some things that may play into this decision:
a. Consider Your Limits
Be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot handle. Providing care for an abusive, manipulative, or gravely ill parent may cross your limits. Know it is okay to reach your breaking point and need to step away.
b. Focus on Your Well-Being
Consider how continuing the relationship with your parent affects your mental and physical health. Are you experiencing chronic stress, anxiety, depression? Does caring for them jeopardize your safety or basic needs? Prioritize walking away if the relationship is truly unhealthy.
c. Set Clear Boundaries
Before fully cutting off contact, you may choose to set firm boundaries and limit interactions. Boundaries provide some distance and stress relief, while still allowing some degree of relationship. However, boundaries require the parent’s cooperation – which is not always possible.
d. Involve Other Family
Discuss the situation with siblings or relatives. Can another family member provide care or supervision? Sharing responsibilities may enable you to stay involved to a degree without being the sole caregiver. If no other support exists, it may be impossible for you to continue without seriously compromising your wellbeing.
e. Explore Community Resources
Research community services that could potentially help provide your parent with transportation, meals, nursing care, housing assistance, etc. If your parent will accept help from outside resources, this may enable you to step back while still ensuring they have some support system in place.
f. Consider Legal Action
In cases of elder abuse or extremely hazardous living conditions, you may need to pursue legal action, such as obtaining power of attorney, utilizing Adult Protective Services, or seeking guardianship. Legal steps can help you make decisions on your parent’s behalf if they are unable to care for themselves and resist assistance.
g. Get Support
Joining a support group, seeing a counselor, or speaking to friends who have been caregivers can help give you perspective. Support systems help you process emotions, reduce isolation, and determine if walking away is necessary for self-preservation.
Know You Have Limits
Accept that you may reach a point where you need to choose your own health and well-being over providing intensive care for a parent who will not help themselves. You are not “abandoning” them. Walking away may be the only way to survive an untenable situation.
The Impacts of Walking Away
Choosing to sever contact or severely limit interactions with an aging parent can have significant emotional consequences:
a. Grief and Guilt
You will likely feel profound grief over losing the relationship. Even if walking away was necessary, you may be plagued by guilt and regret over “abandoning” your parent. Allow yourself space to mourn the loss.
Along with sadness often comes a sense of relief at ending constant strain and anxiety. Enjoy feeling freer and more at peace without the burden of a destructive relationship. You made a healthy choice to protect yourself.
c. Emotional Aftershocks
For a long time after cutting off an abusive parent, you may occasionally experience surges of anger, grief, or self-doubt. Recognize these emotional aftershocks are normal parts of the healing process.
d. Fear and Isolation
You may feel isolated from family who disagree with your choice to walk away. The notion of your parent aging alone may stir up fear and discomfort. Battle isolation by connecting with supportive friends and focusing your energy on your needs.
e. Re-Establishing Boundaries
If you remain minimally in contact, be vigilant about maintaining boundaries. A destructive parent will continually try to cross any line you draw. Hold firm to protect your mental health.
Part—especially if your parent was not completely abusive all the time—likely feels affection towards your parent and remorse over the separation. Seek counseling to work through conflicting emotions.
Use relaxation practices, journaling, therapy, or support groups to help process the barrage of emotions. Implement healthy coping strategies rather than destructive ones. Know that ambivalent feelings towards your choice are normal.
Seeking closure allows you to process the grief and move forward after walking away from a parent:
a. Accept Your Decision
Practice self-compassion and acknowledge that permanently cutting off contact or limiting interactions was a difficult but necessary act of self-care. You are not to blame for their situation.
b. Release Resentment
Harboring resentment and anger towards your parent only breeds negative emotions. Find ways to release the hurt, such as writing a letter you do not send. Focus on understanding the abused inner child driving your resentment.
c. Do Not Forget
Whileimportant to let go of resentment, also avoid complete suppression of emotions. Take time to process and express your feelings through counseling or journals.
d. Celebrate Relief
Focus on the profound sense of peace, freedom, and relief that comes with walking away from an abusive or destructive relationship. Take back your life and celebrate.
e. Reinforce Boundaries
If you allow limited contact, continually reinforce clear behavioral boundaries and know when to detach. Remain hypervigilant about protecting your mental health.
f. Process Regret
Even if walking away was healthiest, feeling some regret is natural. Writing about regrets can help process these emotions. Focus on forgiving yourself and finding acceptance.
i. Honor Your Needs
Keep centering yourself and honoring your needs. You walked away to preserve your emotional and physical well-being. Don’t let guilt derail caring for yourself.
j. Seek Closure Rituals
Some people find comfort in symbolic rituals that provide a sense of closure, like writing a goodbye letter, creating a memorial, or visiting meaningful places. Rituals can help grieving.
k. Be Open to Forgiveness
While difficult, being open to potentially forgiving your parent down the road can help healing. However, only consider this if your parent shows real change and you feel safe letting them back in.
l. Look Ahead
Accept that the relationship is in the past. When doubts creep up, redirect your thoughts to the present. Focus on goals that give your life meaning, such as relationships, hobbies, and community.
Don’t struggle alone after choosing to detach from an abusive or destructive parent. Seek out support:
- Join a support group, either for elder caregiving or abuse survivors, to connect to others who understand.
- Call a hotline – speak to a counselor over the phone for emotional support and guidance.
- Get individual counseling to process feelings with an unbiased professional.
- Talk to close friends and family members who see your situation clearly and provide reassurance.
- Read books and online articles to help gain perspective through other people’s experiences.
- Join an online community to exchange advice and encouragement with those in similar situations.
- Consider emotional check-ups with a counselor periodically, even years later, when difficult emotions re-emerge.
How to Handle the Regret of Leaving Elderly Parents
Here are six strategies for overcoming the shame of leaving aging parents.
1. Acknowledge it.
Accepting the situation is the greatest method to get over guilt after relocating away from your aging parents. Anyone may always do more to make their senior loved ones more comfortable. But there is only so much a long-distance caregiver can accomplish because it is always easier said than done.
2. Create a communication strategy.
Although a visit might be preferable, video calls are nonetheless very effective. Establish a regular time to speak with your elderly parents so that you both have something to anticipate and are not concerned with finding a convenient time or forgetting to call.
Additionally, you should have reasonable expectations. Although they probably have more free time, adult children typically have more demanding schedules.
Whether it’s once a week or once every other week, choose the days and hours that suit your schedule the most. They’ll comprehend.
3 Try to clarify “Caring”
Nowadays, you can accomplish a lot from a distance, so it’s critical to recognize your skills as your parents’ unofficial caregiver. Hiring a qualified caregiver is one of the finest ways to make sure your elderly parents’ requirements are addressed.
While you can converse with them to meet their social requirements, a professional caregiver may be required to take them shopping, prepare meals for them, or clean the house. They can also take care of your parents’ personal needs when you might not be able to, allowing you to relax in the event of an emergency.
4 Resolve old disputes.
Recognize that moving away might intensify long-standing grudges and unsolved conflicts, which can increase caregiver guilt.
Whether you felt your brother was the favor growing up or that you didn’t see one parent frequently enough, the moment has come to let those feelings go. These are the last things you want to be thinking or feeling when you know your parent needs you.
If necessary, seek the assistance of a family therapist who can assist you in resolving old problems and even help you consider the matter from your parent’s perspective.
5. Help the main caregiver.
Helping the primary caregiver as much as you can is one of the most crucial things to do. If you and your sibling previously shared the responsibility of providing informal care, moving away can make the guilt associated with providing care much worse.
Encourage your sister or primary caregiver with kind words, help out financially if you can, or be there for them when they need to chat.
Additionally, it’s critical that the caregivers interact and support one another, particularly when caregiver stress levels are at their peak.
Managing specific family paperwork, such as insurance and medical claims, mortgage papers, trust and will documents, powers of attorney, and other crucial papers is another technique to assist a primary caregiver.
As you take care of the documentation that can be filed remotely, the primary caregiver can concentrate on delivering the physical assistance.
6. Put your Elderly parents’ needs before your obligations.
Being driven by love rather than duty will help you overcome caregiver guilt, even if it may at first feel difficult or even like work. Caregiving has many stresses, but it also has numerous benefits.
Consider what it meant for you and your parents as you go at old family records, such as photos, letters, or other artifacts.
Share it with them while you recall pleasant moments.
Another strategy is to give your parents a random call to express your concern. Another meaningful approach to express your affection for someone is by mailing them things like care packages or handwritten messages.