How to address elder abuse of family caregivers

While elder abuse is an important issue we must better address as a society, there is less open discussion about elders who abuse their family caregivers. But it is a real issue, with potentially devastating physical, mental, and emotional consequences for the caregiver. A mix of embarrassment, shame, and reluctance allows this issue to be kept hidden. But it is important for caregivers to share their stories and seek help when necessary.

I cam across a helpful article on this topic written by Carol Bradley Bursack of Minding Our Elders. She tells of a time when she faced nasty treatment from her mother when Bursack visited her at the nursing home where she resided. A nurse offered sage advice: skip a day of visitation. A day of respite offered Bursack the break she didn’t even realize she needed and helped clear the air with her mother, who was very pleasant on her next visit.

This made me think of a similar example from my own caregiving experience and how I handled it. As I write about extensively in my book, The Reluctant Caregiver, my mother and I were like oil and water together. We had opposite personalities and our differences only magnified as my mother dealt with a grueling recovery from cancer surgery and I became her live-in caregiver. I became responsible for managing her colostomy, which always involved some trial and error. When she developed a hernia, my mother’s discomfort yet decision to delay the necessary surgery only made her mood more foul. In the middle of the night she called out to me, letting me know her ostomy bag was leaking. This was an occasional occurrence and usually my mother was apologetic and grateful for my assistance. But not that night. She berated me, telling me I didn’t know what I was doing over and over. This despite the fact that she would not learn how to change the bag herself, which was the main reason I remained her live-in caregiver. I got the bag changed, walked away as she continued to yell at me, and went to my bedroom. I was angrier than I had ever been in my life. Rage shook my body. I knew I needed a break, and soon.

Respite care in a rural community is hard to come by, but fortunately, there was a resort hotel within short walking distance of my mother’s condo. I made a reservation online for the next night. The next morning, I was polite but cool to my mother, who tried to pretend nothing had happened. I told her I was spending the night at a hotel, and that it was the best thing for both of us. She put up a bit of fight but I could tell she knew she had crossed a line. I walked out that afternoon with zero regrets. If my mother had a medical need, she could call me and I would’ve been there in 10 minutes, so she was in no danger. My emotional well-being was in danger. I so enjoyed that night in the hotel. I got a good night’s sleep for the first time in months and felt refreshed and in a better state of mind upon returning to my mother’s place. While we still had our disagreements, she never again treated me the way she did that night. There are regrets I have about my mother’s care, but the decision I made that night to care for myself—I have no regrets at all.

Here are some tips on what to do if you are facing an abusive situation involving an elder relative:

  • Confide in a trusted source: Talk to someone about what you are facing. Ideally, it will be someone outside of your family unit, such as a friend, support group member, therapist, or pastor. Online forums can provide instant feedback. Sometimes we become so deeply involved in caregiving we get tunnel vision and have a hard time acknowledging the realities of the situation. We often want to make excuses for our loved ones who are abusive, but having a trusted sounding board can help you identify if you are in an abusive situation that needs outside assistance.
  • Set boundaries: It is easy to allow yourself to be taken advantage of by those you care for, out of guilt or sense of duty. But it is important to carve out time for your needs, otherwise you will suffer caregiver burnout. Elders who desire to age in place will need to understand that you will not be able to wait on them 24/7, and outside help may be necessary to attend to their needs. For elders in nursing homes, they should be encouraged to develop social relationships with fellow residents and staff instead of relying upon daily visits from a relative, which may be a burden for those juggling a job and childcare duties. If the abuse becomes overwhelming, it may require an extended separation.
  • Use respite care: If respite care is offered in your area, take advantage of those services! If not, seek options for informal respite care. This could be a friend, relative, church member, etc. who is willing and capable to spend time with your loved one while you take the afternoon or evening off to tend to your own needs. Even a few hours of respite, if taken regularly, can make a big difference.

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