Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Aging Narcissist Dilemma

What do we owe our parents when they grow old and need help?

How much of our time and energy and money should we expend on their behalf?

Do we sacrifice our own retirement savings? Compromise our children's college funds? Do we work less, bank less in order to save money on such places as costly assisted living facilities?

Some parents did a better job than others saving money or planning for the future. But even these wise parents could not have predicted they'd live so long or need so much daily assistance. To those who need but can't afford institutional help, the task and responsibility may then fall to their adult children. That "help" can quickly become an unmanageable burden on the only adult child.

This is a dilemma that more and more of us will face.

The U.S. Census Department has some alarming stats on our elderly (65 and over) population.

--The rate of growth of the elderly population has greatly exceeded the growth rate of the country as a whole;
--the number of persons 65 and over would more than double by the middle of the next century to 80 million;
--the oldest old (85 and older) are a small but rapidly growing group and are projected to be the fastest growing segment of the elderly population (from 1964 to 1994, this group increased 274 percent)

This is obvious, but the U.S. Census Dept. also points out that the need for personal assistance with daily activities increases with age.

If you enjoyed a loving, warm relationship with your aging parent, this is still tough stuff. You have a marriage, children, a mortgage, a career worked hard all your life and was looking forward to some time off. Instead of gardening or traveling, you find yourself sticking close to home to care for your aging parent.

But if you are the adult child of a narcissistic parent? A parent who emotionally neglected you? A parent who may have been emotionally abusive? A parent you can't stand to be in the same room with? A parent who barks orders and gets nasty the second they don't get their way? A parent, who in fine health, needed to be the constant center of attention? A parent who sucks all your energy and leaves you none for yourself?

This is what I'm worried about, folks.

With all those rapidly aging parents out there, a fair number of them are narcissists.

But societal expectations of elder care do not take this into account. It is assumed that the parent fed, clothed, loved, supported and nurtured the child. It does not easily admit that some parents were simply incapable of parenting a child. It does not account for the fact that some people have spent their entire lives parenting their parents and now that the parent is old, the child has grown up and is worn out and fed up.

I suspect many adult children of narcissists "wake up" or get a clue when they approach or hit middle age. Right around the same time their narcissistic parent begins showing signs of needing help.

Only WE know just how bad things were in our own homes. Only WE know how we were neglected.

Yet just try telling someone, even a good friend, that you aren't willing to sacrifice yourself to your aging self-centered parent by changing adult diapers or giving them a shower. Go ahead. See what happens. You are likely to get a stern reminder that your parent fed you when you were little and changed YOUR diapers and did the best they could, making you feel like the world's biggest asshole.

If you write to a newspaper columnist and try explaining your dilemma in hopes of finding support, forget it. You're in for a smackdown. You are more likely to be told you are an irresponsible, ungrateful jerk.

People who do not have a narcissistic parent don't get it. They have no idea what we're talking about. Don't look to them for any kind of support and advice. Don't even waste your breath trying to explain. They simply can't fathom the lifelong pain and loss of having a parent who couldn't see or acknowledge you. They can't understand the suffocating/smothering feeling you get when you are in contact with your narcissistic parent. They can't understand that just a casual encounter with such a parent can leave you churned up, for days. They can't fathom the toxicity of a narcissistic parent.

My advice?

Look inward. Do what you can. You can still act morally, while protecting yourself. Take responsibility if you must and can't avoid it, but outsource their care if that's an option. Don't do it to yourself. Don't even try. Don't feel guilty. Or try not to.

In my next post, I'll share some great advice I got from a geriatric specialist who spent some time with my Dad.

Until then, take care of yourself.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Narcissistic Parent & Failing Health

One of the challenges of having an aging narcissitic parent is trying to figure out if they are just becoming more self-centered or showing signs of dementia.

Only time will tell. But that time will be hell.

It all began about four years ago.

My childlike narcissistic father, then 77, was suffering from bladder incontinence. The doctor tried various pills, but none worked. Ndad found out about the surgery called a, "rotorooter," and demanded it, against doctor's advice. I flew down for the consultation. The doctor explained that it probably wouldn't work and that at ndad's age and condition, the risk of complications were too great.

Ndad would not listen. He wanted that surgery and was threatening to schedule it. Since we live 400 miles apart and ndad is completely alone, I offered to arrange the surgery near me, so that he could stay with me afterward as he'd be too weak to stay by himself. (Having two kids, a husband, a house, a big dog and part-time work to also take care of.) This he refused. It wasn't convenient for him. He wanted to stay in the comfort of his own home. I then offered to arrange for homecare. This he also refused. I BEGGED him not to have the surgery. I WARNED him repeatedly that it was too dangerous. Finally, he dropped the subject.

After years of saving for a nice vacation, our little family finally was about to have one. A beach vacation that we were looking forward to, especially my husband who works like a dog. I gave ndad the exact dates of our vacation months in advance. Of course, he secretly scheduled his elective surgery for two days before we were set to leave.

While packing, I get a phone call from paramedics. Ndad had a complication and was being rushed to the hospital. I flew down. He was released the next day, but would not be allowed to stay alone. Much scrambling to find a good convalescent hospital. Once there, he told everybody he met that he'd be all alone because his only child was jetting off when he was so sick. I could have killed him. (This from the man who left me in the hospital by myself when I was ten).

My vacation had been ruined. I was practically sick with guilt and the stress of making last minute arrangements. When we got back, ndad had left dozens of frantic messages on our home phone, crying, saying he couldn't stand the convalascent hospital and demanding to be taken out immediately. I got off one plane and hopped on another. The nurse there told me he'd threatened to kill himself and had to be put on meds. Some people took me aside and scolded me for heartlessly leaving him alone to suffer.

Of course, ndad blamed me for everything. For the complication of his surgery. For forcing him into the convalscent hospital. For not taking care of him myself. For being selfish and screwing everything up. For selecting the surgeon who'd botched his surgery. He took no responsibility for anything.

Now this wasn't unusual. It was consistent with past behavior. When I went away to college, I got the blame for sending him to the emergency room because I'd made him upset and nervous. But it was different. It was....worse. It was the beginning of Lewy Body Dementia, a disease of the frontal lobes that impacts judgment. An almost ironic affliction. A man with little judgment can ill afford to lose the tiny bit he has.

Oh, and the surgery? It didn't work at all.

After a lifetime of dealing with ndad's strange and difficult behavior, things were about to get even worse.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Mother Who Was Not There

A middle-aged friend is suddenly having trouble with her aging mother.

Until recently, her mother was a very sweet and generous woman. When my friend has a problem with one of her teenagers or her husband, she drives over to her mother's assisted living facility and talks to her. Her mother, who has no dementia, listens carefully and not only gives great advice, but is very comforting and reassuring.

My friend is annoyed because her mother, now 85, is becoming difficult and more self-centered. The roles are reversing. She now has to listen to her mother complain. She must now reassure her mother. And it's driving her absolutely crazy. She resents the hell out of the fact that she is no longer being treated like the child. Her needs are not being met by her mother. My friend is at loose ends.

I told my friend she is grieving the loss of the mother-daughter relationship.

Later, it occurred to me that I NEVER had that relationship EVER. As an adopted "child," I had two mothers, but none. I had plenty of sympathy for my friend, but little for me.

We adult children of narcissists have to give ourselves a break. A big, fat break. We grew up without any emotional support and ended up not only alone, but dragging around heavy chains of guilt.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Narcissists Say the Damndest Things

The other day, my (adoptive) narcissistic father called Martin Luther King, "a nobody."

I didn't bother to ask him why he thought this about the Baptist preacher, who was recently called a "universal role model" by Nicolas Sarkozy. I really didn't want to know. I could guess, but it's a big, fat waste of time and energy.

The point is, my father has said this sort of thing for as long as I can remember. That so and so is "a nobody," usually men who've somehow overcome adversity of some sort, like being a minority or poor.

My father really had it in for my first boyfriend's father. He too was Mexican, born poor and raised in East L.A. But he'd graduated from high school and had gone to college and had the audacity to become a lawyer. My father was extremely offended that this man had a bigger house and a nicer car (a blue Ford L.T.D.), but what really pushed my father over the edge, however, was that this man was quiet, dignified and reserved. "Who does he think he is, anyway?" my father would rage. "He thinks he's hot shit. But he's a nobody!"

I would gladly have exchanged my childlike father for my boyfriend's father in a heartbeat. In fact, I suspect I dated certain guys because I coveted their fathers, who seemed like men.

My father doesn't say this so much now that he's in an assisted living facility, but when he called King "a nobody," it reminded me of how much he used to say it. And how much I hated it growing up. It was a reminder that something was wrong with my father. That he wasn't like other dads. That he was more like a young teenager having a jealous fit than a grown-up. It made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It made me seethe with resentment. My father caused me endless, excruciating embarrassment. It made me hate him.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Other Narcissists in Your Life

Once you come to terms (as best you can) with the narcissistic parent in your life, you begin to examine the other relationships in your life. With a more critical eye. If you've been trained to meet the needs of a self-centered parent, chances are, you have at least one other narcissist in your life. If you're lucky, your past life. Maybe an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. Ex-husband?

Over the last week, I've realized that a friend I made seven years ago is very self-centered. She does most of the talking. I listen. I offer endless empathy and support. She hops from one drama to another. What she does offer is intelligent conversation and occasional support. But this relationship is way, way out of balance.

I'm struggling with how sad and pathetic this is. That this kind of one-sided relationship seemed so normal. Now it just feels so wrong.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Narcissism and Dementia #1

When you have a narcissistic parent, it's even harder to figure out if they are developing dementia.

Are they just being self-centered? Again? Or is their latest behavior something more ominous?

My self-centered adoptive mother was always moody. Occasionally, she'd take against people and never talk to them again. Then my cousin called to complain, bitterly, that my mother was acting strange and had stopped speaking to her, for no reason she could understand. A part of me wanted to say, "Welcome to the club," because my mother had used cold, punishing silences on me all my life. But I didn't. Back then, I was still protecting my mom's image as a devoted, loving adoptive mother. A year later, after many other signs and symptoms, my mother would be diagnosed with Alzheimers.

Then there was my adoptive father. Of the two, he was the more peculiar. Childlike in his constant need for attention. A loner. A hard worker, who never hung around with the other blue collar guys because, I suspected, they couldn't stand his endless chatter and his negativity. My father could never just hang.

With him, everything was a drama. Trips to the dentist, a shot at the doctor's office, an exam at the Department of Motor Vehicles, Open House at school. These weren't just ordinary things. They were things that happened only to him. Routine procedures hurt more. The lines at the DMV were longer. Open House was held at night and he had to go to work the next day. You get the point.

Then here comes the confusing part. My childlike narcissist father, overall, was a highly responsible person is some areas, pathetic in others. For example, he lived frugally and saved money. He paid his bills before they were due. He bought life insurance and prepaid his funeral expenses, even picking his own casket and music. He gave me Power of Attorney when the time came. Arguably, these were all things done for himself.

But then there are all those messes I had to clean up because he constantly did (or failed to do) things that impacted others. This list would be very long, so I'll just give one example.

He brought my mother to visit a week after I had my second daughter. My mother had Alzheimers by then, but I didn't know that (we lived states apart). My mother was behaving oddly. Remote. Detached. She was useless. Dad insisted nothing was wrong. With two children under two, I had to cook and clean and tend the kids while taking care of both parents. Then Dad went off with my husband for the day (I asked my husband to get Dad out of my hair, his chatter was driving me nuts) and I was left alone with my mother and the babies. My mother went crazy. So I chased her down the street and called 911. Later, Dad admitted mom had Alzheimers, but said he didn't want to tell me or cancel the visit because he'd been looking forward to a break. It never occurred to him that I had just had a baby and was exhausted myself. That I could have used a break and help after a scary pregnancy fraught with complications.

That was typical, narcissistic behavior. My friends were shocked. They couldn't believe a parent would act this way. When they had their babies and their parents visited, they were treated like queens. At the time, I didn't even know enough to be angry or resentful. That was just the way it was. I do remember being unhappy, stressed and highly agitated, although I couldn't have said why.

But then there may come a time when your narcissistic parent begins to act in a way that is causing even more problems....

(to be continued)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Lower Class Narcissist

One of the things that confused me, at first, about who is a narcissist and who is not actually had to do with socioeconomic class.

I believed that a narcissist had to be smart or at least have money. That it was a problem associated with the educated and well-to-do. People who ran companies or sold millions of albums or acted or who were like those deranged, misguided, brilliant twins in the movie, Dead Ringers. But the criteria that seemed necessary was intelligence. I don't know where I got this idea.

My adoptive family is second generation Mexican-American. My adoptive parents didn't finish high school. They may have got through the 10th or 11th grade. They didn't read books. Ever. They were suspicious of higher education and mocked my plans for college. They lacked intellectual curiosity. Their conversation was very limited. Looking back on it, it almost seems like they weren't capable of abstract thought. It's hard to explain. But they didn't talk about ideas or make connections between past and present. They didn't say, "Oh, I read this today and it reminded me of..."

My adoptive Dad acted like he got stuck at the age of 14/15. My adoptive Mom around, maybe, 18.

They were ignorant. And poorish. And yes, self-centered. They both had in common childhood trauma.

My adoptive Dad was very childlike in his need for constant attention. He was, and is, totally oblivious of the effect he has on others. He does not see others recoil. He seems to lack self-awareness. When he's rude and offensive, as he often is, he blames others for being too sensitive.

My husband, a white guy, used to think my Dad's behavior was cultural. That the fact that he did all the talking and I did the listening was rooted in our Mexican culture. Then I explained that my friend's parents didn't act like that. They listened to their kids. Made them the center of attention.

Then I started reading about narcissistic parents. And read what other adult children of narcissists had to say. And it just sort of jumped out at me that many of these parents were just average people. That not all narcissists act grandiose or think they are the most beautiful or talented person in the room. It's about the attention they need and the fact that they were unable to meet the emotional needs of their children. That somehow, everything got screwed up and the roles got reversed.

While parents can be poor and undereducated, they can also be emotionally available and supportive. My adoptive aunt, for example. She never graduated high school and my uncle was a blue collar worker, too. But she was warm and wise and listened and was so acknowledging. She was a very empathetic woman.

Empathy. The lack of it is devastating to a child. Of any socioeconomic class. Narcissistic parents may say they care, and they probably do in their own way, but all the child (or adult child) can feel is the parent's inavailability. The inability to SEE them, HEAR them. The child wanders around like a ghost. Invisible. I read an article Elise linked to about voicelessness. I'd never thought of it that way. But that's exactly what happens. The narcissistic parent is so big, so demanding, so all consuming and, in my dad's case, so talkative...that the child is not able to express herself as she is. Only a part of her is accepted. The part that the parent needs. That's where the training comes in. The child is trained to listen or to give comfort or admiration.

Naricissistic parents may differ. A lot. But it's not just an affliction of the upper classes.

Friday, January 11, 2008


Yes, that's me. Off to the right there, looking absolutely miserable.

Those are my adoptive parents.

My amom was controlling and domineering and self-centered. She made me pretend I was biologically hers because she, "didn't like to think of me that way." Meaning adopted.

Then there's my adad. Phew. Basket case. Diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder in his seventies after a lifetime of being a childlike loner. Emphasis on childlike. He needs constant attention. He talks constantly. I am 47 and I've never, ever managed to complete a full sentence in "conversation" with my adad in my life. This is not an exaggeration.

I was about ten in that picture. It was taken at an amusement park. It was one of the few times I got to go. My amom was a party girl and thought doing stuff like that was incredibly boring. The only time I got to go to Disneyland, we had to go home early because adad got sick on a ride. Then blamed me.

If I knew what I was in for later in life with those two, I might have thrown myself off the rollercoaster.

My amom used cold, punishing silences to get me to do what she wanted. These silences could go on for weeks. Once, for several years. She stopped talking to me when I went away to college because I'd left her. When I'd call and try to tell her about my thrilling new experiences, she'd say, "Uh uh, uh uh. Isn't that nice for you." Then she'd hand the phone to adad who would immediately interrupt and tell me all about himself.

Then amom developed Alzheimers. I managed her care for almost ten years, while trying to manage my childlike adad and caring for my two little girls.

Soon after she died, adad developed Lewy Body dementia. I am now managing his care, after forcing him into an assisted living facility.

I am entering my 16th year as the caretaker of parents with dementia. Some good news and bad news. Alzheimers turned my strong, cold amom into a compliant, soft-spoken one. The frontal lobe dementia called Lewy Bodies has made adad's narcissism even worse.

You'd think I would have figured out this whole narcissism thing decades ago.

But I didn't.

I've just figured it out within the last year or so, sort of by accident. On the way out of my adoption fog. I've chronicled that journey at

I decided to start this blog because most of the people visiting did so after Googling, "narcissistic parent" or "narcissistic elderly parent" or some other variation.

If you stop by, please leave a comment. No need to apologize if it's long. I don't mind. I read and learn from them all, even if I sometimes run out of time and don't reply personally to every one.