The quick answer to that question is “No, you do not have to provide care to an unhealthy or aging parent as an adult, especially when that parent abused you as a child.”
All parents commit to “the most basic contract” when they conceive and decide to keep and raise a child, which is, as Dr. Laura Brown wrote, “the agreement to care for, protect, and nurture that child safely into adulthood, putting their own needs secondary to those of the child.” This contract is a necessary component of evolution for without it no species could survive, which explains why it is considered the most basic contract that exists.
My clients all agree with the central tenant of this contract when we discuss it. They agree that they had no part in deciding to be conceived, for the pregnancy to have gone full-term, or for their parents to have decided to keep them rather than put them up for adoption after they were born.
The idea that the most basic contract is one-sided, meaning that their parents entered into this contract but they did not, however, is usually novel. This is because they heard repeatedly over their childhoods that they “owed” their parents something.
Dr. Brown explains, “When a parent violates this contract, it becomes null and void. You, as the child, have no duty to care for someone who abused you. You may experience pressure to do so from your extended family, social circle, or even yourself, but this makes no sense.”
One argument Dr. Brown puts forward is that “individuals who have been sexually assaulted, physically beaten, starved or verbally abused by people who are not members of their family are not required to look after their attackers. No one would consider a request of this sort reasonable.” She argues that abused children should not have to look after their attackers just because their attacker happens to have been their mother or father.
Once you give yourself permission to not provide care to the unhealthy or aging parent who abused you, you are free to determine how involved in the care of that parent that you want to be. People whose parents will continue to abuse them if they get too close often chose a complete “cut-off.” Those for whom the abuse ended in childhood may elect to remain involved from a distance, perhaps selecting the care facility the parent will move into, or hiring and supervising in-home caregivers to provide hands-on care.
If you are struggling to come to terms with this question and would like to explore it in more depth, you will find an excellent discussion in Laura Brown’s book titled “You turn for care: Surviving the aging and death of the adults who harmed you.” This book is not currently available in bookstores, but can be ordered on-line by visiting www.drlaurabrown.com.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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