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.


Anonymous said...

Until very recently, I had actually considered taking my mother in to live with us when she was no longer able to take care of herself. We had been talking about it for a few years, in fact, as something in the distant future.

What changed in our circumstances is that my mother had a serious medical emergency while visiting us resulting in our finding out that she had been hiding a stack of medical paperwork a mile thick from us. She was with half a dozen doctors, on half a dozen medications (some duplicate prescriptions, so if she ran out of one too soon, she would refill the other), and, in short, a red tape nightmare. My stepdad knew about it, too, because when I asked to have next of kin status to question the doctors in the hospital about her mismanaging her medications, both mom and stepdad told me it was not my business.

That was kind of a last straw for me. I basically told my mother that obviously her coming to live with us someday was not a matter of giving her some Murder She Wrote DVDs and checking on her twice a day, that she was clearly in need of seriously professional health care management, and that as I had kids and other obligations, there was no way I could responsibly take her in. I would never "forgive myself" for something happening to her under my inadequate care.

She did some backtracking like 'oh, it's not all that bad', but basically I backed her into a corner that she couldn't get out of. If it's 'not all that bad', she doesn't need me to care for her, and if she needs care, I need for it to be the 'best care', which I can't provide.

That argument is working for me at the moment. I get no flak for telling people that my mom needs the "best health care possible" and that the best thing I can do for her is to admit that it's beyond my personal means to provide the "best" in my home setting.

Nina said...

ANONYMOUS, I wonder why your mom and stepdad hid such important information? Pride? Not wanting to admit ill health and age and fear of maybe being encouraged toward some sort of assisted living situation? It's funny. Because there is such pressure w/in families and societal expectations that we care for our aged parents ourselves, we feel the need to come up with arguments. I like yours, btw, and I'm not being critical. I've done the same, believe me!

You didn't say if your mother is a narcissist...or just more self-centered with age...which does happen.

Natalie said...

Nina, you have wonderful insight! Although I was not raised by narcissists, it doesn't take much to look around and see the types of situations you describe.

I agree that cultural expectations fail to take into account individual circumstances. This is often true with the things we deem "conventional wisdom".

The greatest gift any one of us can give the world is to honor our own decisions, follow our own path, take care of ourselves. The difference between narcissism and self-care can seem subtle but the drivers are different. One comes from self hatred the other, self love.

When we are put in the position to justify our decisions it only compounds the problem. Who or what is so important that we jeopardize being true to ourselves? It ultimately makes little sense to spend our time doing the things OTHER people tell us are the right things to do. How, with all due respect, could they possibly know?

Nina said...

Thanks for stopping by, Natalie, and leaving such a thought provoking comment!

Hah! NOT knowing isn't enough to stop many people giving unsolicited advice...especially those in the extended family! The people who told me I must move my dad in with me and take care of him myself were the very same people who not once called or visited him when he moved into the assisted living facility. They immediately forgot about him the moment they didn't have to deal with him. These people didn't like him...but were all too happy to tell me I should devote my life 24/7! This was a valuable lesson!

Annie said...

Nina, another great post. Thankyou. We can support and validate one another, us adult children of narcissists. We can understand one another. Almost all that you write resonates so deeply with me, that I'm afraid I've left some "narcissistic" comments of my own in response. I'm sorry if you've found them so. All the best.

Celera said...

I particularly like your closing thought there, Nina. We have to do what we believe is right, honorable and appropriate. I'm not sure that how much we should help an aging parent is necessarily a function of how good a parent they were to us. We may have to do better than they did for us.

Since my narcissistic parent cut me off years ago, I get off easy on the aging parent thing. But I have a narcissistic ex-husband and sister-in-law (what am I, some kind of magnet for these people?) And I've found that when I decide what I will or won't do for them, it has to be based solely on what I would do for someone in that situation who wasn't narcissistic. It can't be based at all on what they would be willing to do for me (nothing) or what they expect from me (everything.) Of course, you can never be entirely sure you are right, and there will always be people who will be happy to say you are wrong.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I set here and read...and some more... and thought... "Wow. this is my situation in a nutshell." So glad that I'm not alone. Keep writing. I for one am refreshed by it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Nina,

A big THANK YOU to you and the other comments from bloggers. Every word rings true, it's such a relief to know one isn't alone.

Best wishes to everyone out there dealing with the fallout from a narcissistic parent!

Anonymous said...

God bless you for this post (and everyone for all their comments). I am in a situation where I am a single mom taking care of a narcissistic parent with cancer. It's actually taking care of TWO narcissistic parents because my father is here too. I am going to print this post out and keep it under my pillow! Sometimes the validation and knowing you're not alone makes all the difference.


I pray for everyone in this situation... we don't have to suffer anymore...

Anonymous said...

Wow, I am practically in tears after finding this. I am 32 with a 60 year old mentally ill mother- narcissistic personality disorder is just one of her many diagnoses. I have taken care of her for practically my whole life, and now I am being pressured by her friends to move to her town (where there are no job opportunities for my field) and move in with her. ARGHHH!! Has anyone noticed how narcissists seem to surround themselves with other people who engage in twisted and selfish thinking? When I ask these people where I will be in 30 years if start taking care of her now, they have no answer. And GOD FORBID, if express that I might want to have a family or life of my own, I then become the world's biggest ass-hole, as it appears that my sole purpose in life is to care for a disturbed person who terrorized me as a child. Can you believe that I mistakenly believed that children are supposed to grow up, leave home, and forge their own lives??? Seriously, though, finding this post has been incredibly validating, and I think that an untold number of baby-boomer's kids will be facing this issue in the very near future.
Not everyone grew up with Ward and June Cleaver as parents, unfortunately, and we should not be asked to turn the other cheek to our narcissistic parents.

Anonymous said...

You're right that this is a horrible process to go through. My wife has a grandparent who shares a very dependent relationship with several self-absorbed adult children. All demand money and try to get other people to do the things they are responsible for. When my wife was growing up, her parents dragged her and her siblins to their grandparents' home so their parents could ask them for money, which they give willingly in large amounts, but with the strings of guilt and dependence attached. It's a heart-wrenching, very painful thing to watch. As my wife got older, she put her foot down about limitless visits. She also developed medical issues. When I've seen them, I've noticed they are very disrespectful of boundaries. And her father is a very difficult person. I'm amazed she was able to trust men.

Anonymous said...

Wow... I'm not alone... Growing up my father was always verbally and physically abusive towards my mother as well as my brother and I. My brother ended up leaving home to a different state without telling anyone except my mother. My father had not agreed to my brothers way of leaving and stopped speaking to him for some time. I was angry and felt as if my brother had "chickened out" or "ran away" like a coward from our home situation and left my mother and I behind to deal with it on our own. A year or two went by and I ended up getting married which didn't go well with my father either for he didn't agree with the way I had gotten married. Not only did my husband have to ask my father for my hand in marriage but I had to remain at home with my parents until I was wed. I was 32 years old mind you and I ended up leaving home one month before my wedding. It's been two years since and though at first my father stopped speaking to me for a few months it was hurtful that he didn't show to walk me down the aisle but it also gave me some sense of relief being away and not hearing from him for some time. He then contacted me out of the blue one day because he was having "chest pain" and I was the only one around to take him to the hospital. At the hospital there was no "Hello, how are you? Haven't spoken or seen you in months. I'm sorry for not showing up at your wedding" nothing. I've tried being tolerant and civil and since then I have visited occassionally being that my mother still lives with this man. I do this so as to keep the peace among them so to speak. He still terrorizes her. Things are his way or the highway and nothing you can ever do or say is right. Problem is I am physically and emotionally drained everytime I am over there. No one else can get a word in because he will not stop talking about all his medical issues but doesn't care to think that mother and I may not be feeling well ourselves. We are not allowed to have a bad day. How dare us if we do and we never hear the end of it if we even show signs of a headache or not feeling well. My concern and biggest worry is my mother and the abuse she deals with while living there but I can not afford to have her live with my husband and I. We live in a one bedroom apartment and cannot move into a two bedroom apartment being that both my mother and I have pets that we are very attached to and apartments have restrictions on the number of pets allowed. I can not afford to buy a home at the time either. Thing that frustrates me is I have spoken to my brother about what goes on at home with our mother and it either goes in one ear and out the other or he makes himself unavailable. He does not return my calls, text messages, emails, you name it and with him being in a totally different state it is hard to count on him for anything. I understand he has his own life and kids to raise but don't we all. I have a life of my own as well. He wasn't the only victim to the abuse that went on at home. It is not fair that he can so easily cross his arms and turn his back in choosing not to deal with it. Not soo much dealing with our father but contributing to finding a way to help our mother out would be nice. My mother can not even afford her own bills much less a rent of her own. I don't think anyone deserves to get old and to die alone but I feel that if any one person spends their entire life abusing and terrorizing their wife and kids and then expects to be taken care of when older because it is now their moral responsibilty has another thing coming. It really sucks to hear my mother call me crying and telling me "he" is acting up again or to hear all the horrible things he says to her. I just don't really know what to do.

Greg said...

Well, my parents are NOT narcissistic, thank goodness for that. I love them dearly. So when my parents retired, I thought they would move into my house but they wanted to move to the retirement communities in Charlotte instead. Actually, I'm close to my retiring age so I've been reading a lot about retirement living. Charlotte, NC for me has the finest retirement homes in the country!

Anonymous said...

My parents were terrible. Father abandoned at 4 months, mother neglectful and narcissistic. I left home and never looked back. Then years later I got a call from a cousin yelling and screaming at me wondering why I have not been there for them, why I had not helped, why I had not come home. I hung up and changed my # as when I was growing up hungry, alone, trying to survive, my cousins family (my anunt and uncle) who ahd far greater means than we had were no where and all of sudded they are "Family" when they need something. Anyhow, I left and made something of myself and knew that there was no way I was going to pay for the sins of the my father and mother. People need to be accountable and no, if your parents did not plan, there are consequences and you should not have to suffer your future wealth or your children's because they were irresponsible. There are public programs that can help and then at most, I would offer them some assistance on top of that the same way I would a neighbor. If they are not disabled yet - you need to give them some tough love and paint the picture that they better step into high gear - sell the house, down size and sell some stuff, stop supporting any lazy grandkids or kids that are still hanging around, sell the RV, create a living trust, and get a job if they are able. Just curious, are your parents from the 60's era. It's amazing how many elderly there are today from the 60's that screwed their kids and are going to let the good times roll until they slam into your living room with their debt, healthcare bills, rapidly decining ability to do anything and a dumb look on their face with a shoulder shrug that says "I dun know? what am I supposed to do?" Pathetic and don't let them do that to you.

diane doe said...

Honor thy father and mother only if there honorable.I wish we were taken better care of.when we were small they are blaming us for the way. They feel, totally helpless.and they decided to take it out on us again.I pray God take this burden away from my brother and best friend.and me I hope someone hears are prayers this we can move to Arizona no happy memories here.diane

Anonymous said...

I'm living the dream. Broke away from my self-centered egocentric sociopathic, border line hoarder and rarely employed father 30 years ago. I then sneaked off to college against his will. Got a very good job and married the most wonderful woman in the world. Up until now I have been able to keep an arms length away from him and his hurtful comments about my wife, his racist statements, political rantings, ethic slurs, issues with loaded guns in house, anti-religious comments, and his denial of his horrendous financial condition.

To my Dad your worth to the family is what you do. Ironic that he has only been employed a handful of years and the other years he spent burning through the inheritance from his father's farm pretending it was his employment. Even after I broke away from the family somehow Dad wanted to attach strings to everything I did, had, or owned which I ignored. When my brother wed my Dad wanted my brother to get a prenuptial to protect his interest in my brother's house. Really Dad, I mean really?

Up until now I have been able to ignore it. Now his health is failing and run up like eight grand of unpaid credit card bills. Mom and Dad have had separate finances for 35 years and Mom will not give him a cent. He is still trying drive, but we sabotage his truck because he will kill someone. He refuses to use his walker and has fallen two dozen times. I get frantic calls from my Mom and I have to drop everything and go over there and pick him up. I explain that next time he falls it could mean a broken hip and a hospital stay but it falls on deaf ears. He will not take his meds and keeps ordering miracle crap from TV ads and the tons of fliers he gets. He blames the care he is getting from the VA on Obamacare.

My brother and sister some how can't be reached each time there is a crisis. My sister says she talked with my Mom and everything is “fine”. I planned a time so we could all as a family get together with my Dad and have a “discussion” with him. They all agreed, then blew me off.

This is all headed to a very ugly end. Mom can't stand him and I have no emotional feelings for the guy and my brother and sister are in denial about the situation. Sucks that I live only 2 miles away. But I have my family to protect emotionally and financially. I don't care if he ends up on public assistance. Screw you Dad.

Anonymous said...

Currently dealing with an 80 year old active alcoholic mother who lives with my older 53 year old brother, who is also an active alcoholic and sometime druggie. She refuses to throw him out of the house and move into senior citizen housing. They both spend any available cash they have on liquor - begging for what they need, but buying what they want. It's difficult to take care of her when she boozes all the time and neglects her health - she gives him money and what she doesn't give him, he takes. Currently they live in a house without electricity because they neglected to pay the utilities. I'm at my wit's end - I have my own home to pay for, as well as my own health issues...I only visit them on holidays...if I spend too much time with them, they drive me crazy each one complaining to me about the other, and neither one assuming any kind of responsibility for their predicament. Policemen, social workers and therapists have all pretty much told me the same thing - detach with love. There is little that I can do for her.