In this blog-essay Paula Kuitenbrouwer uses several narratives to illustrate how elderly parents can hurt their adult children. She turns to classical literature and fine arts for soul nourishing inspiration. Kuitenbrouwer guides you through the classical story of Pelops followed by philosophical musings and concluding thoughts.
Over a year I have collected different narratives from three continents; all are voiced by women between 55-65 years of age who have taken care of (one of ) their parents. The stories are anonymized. This blog-post essay offers a message of understanding and hope.
Person 1. ‘My ill and rapidly aging parent attacked me verbally. It left me shaking. After a while, I felt a need to talk this over with her but she had forgotten all about it. I know that what she said is part of how she feels about me and that hurts me’.
Person 2. ‘I felt such deep shame for the attack by my old father that it took me a long time before confiding in a friend. It turned out that I wasn’t alone. It was extremely stressful to find yourself in a situation where a parent turns against you. I was astounded how my father pitted my siblings against me when I told him caring for him became too much for me. My siblings ate out of his hand; my father has always had a knack for playing the victim or for acting vulnerable. It opened my eyes to a side of my father that made me question how much I had benefited and suffered from his strategic behaviour. Ever since, I haven’t been able to shake off the feeling that he had never much respect for his children; he had no problem playing them. Luckily, he took responsibility later and apologized, but by then my relationship with my siblings was irreparably damaged. He now suffers from vascular dementia, maybe being mean was a prelude to dementia’.
Person 3. ‘After months of hurling insults, my father returned to his charming sweetness without remembering his offending remarks. Only a vague unease lingered in his mind. He kept on mentioning he was indebted to me. It took me a long time to wrap my brain around his behaviour. What was it? Brain damage? Character? Medication? I still do not know and probably will never know’.
Person 4. ‘You have no idea how racist my parent became towards her Asian nurse’.
Person 5. ‘I have seen it in both of my families; my own and the one I married into. Some parents hurt their adult children and then when relations turn sour, they do not shy away from using their fortune to secure attention, care, and power. Disinheriting as a punitive threat or action; it fast-tracks the disintegration of a family’.
Person 6. ‘I had times when I wondered whether I would actually survive my parent. I noticed that my physical and mental health improved exponentially the longer I stayed away. I would never forgive myself for hurting my child. I have also decided to never start any old age medications. These are drugs that keep the body going whilst the mind deteriorates and perhaps that toxic mix is largely to blame for mean behaviour’.
Person 7. ‘Having been insulted makes you question how much love there was in the first place. We are dealing with a generation that had children because that was what was expected from them. Perhaps there just is not enough love to sustain till the very, very end’.
Person 8. ‘No matter how often I drive hours back and forth to my parents, it is never enough. The suggestion that I fail them is often bluntly communicated’.
Person 9. ‘My parent used others to attack me. They voiced my parent’s disdain in unequivocal terms. This cleverness withheld me for a long time thinking in terms of dementia‘.
Person 10. ‘It all has left me depressed and fearful for my own ageing. High age is romanticized. Perhaps it would be beneficial to offer elderly mental health coaching. There used to be a chaplain taking religious care of old people, now there are mainly nurses and managers’.
Person 11. ‘My father discussed disinheriting my brother with me. I would never capitalize on something so unfair and hurtful, so I advised against it. But I did ask; ‘Did you discuss disinheriting me with my brother also?’ on which the reply came; ‘Yes’. The threat was out in the open. Disinheriting hangs as a Sword of Damocles above primary caretakers whilst siblings not participating in daily care chores are idolized’.
Adult children aren’t snowflakes; they have experienced social hurt as from their young schooldays. There are parents who age into angels and those who resort to toxic games, and all stages in between. The question is why? There are many possible reasons: old age, behavioral side-effects of medication, illness, drinking, rusty social skills, tiredness, decreased empathy, dwindling love, frustration, and character. The answer is seldom uni-causal. Knowing what mix has caused hurtful remarks can put suffering into perspective, so here are a few to consider (and should there be more, please add them to the comment section):
Your parent suffers from brain damage caused by delirium or vascular dementia. In this case, you will shake off the horrible remarks (sometimes even sexual). However, forgiving does not imply tolerance: like with a pet, baby or toddler you should set boundaries. It is no different for geriatric people. Walk away, urge your parent to apologize to you. Prevent this behavior to normalize.
On a less brain-damaged level; parents can have too many debit cards. They pull these cards whenever they feel vulnerable (which is sad). One card is Illness, the other Old Age. Loneliness is another card and so is Inheritance. They masterfully play around with these cards; remember, they know you well. It is a power game of emotional blackmailing, manipulation, and future faking.
There can be an underlying trait of autism, arrogance, or narcissism. In the limited world of an elderly parent it is expected that their children will care for them. That is the natural thing to do, right? Well, children of older parents are somewhere between 50-70 themselves. They are the sandwich generation: taking care of their parents and (adolescent) children, sometimes even grandchildren. If caretakers fall ill or fail, a Vesuvian anger can erupt. Adult children, especially women/daughters, are to be expected to work unrewarded, unpaid, being available 24/7, or else….you will be taught an old fashioned parental lesson.
After identifying possible causes for hurtful behaviour, we need to get as close as possible to compassion. I forgo using the word ‘forgiving’ because forgiving is too often creating fertile soil for more abuse. What I seek here is Buddhist or Christian compassion and kindness which is an inner state that should not (I cannot stress this enough) prohibit assertiveness and sensible self-defense. Many caretakers feel drained, overstretched, and exhausted. They feel like taking care of their elders is a Sisyphean task. Only saints have an inner strength that helps them with their life long service. I am not saintly and maybe neither are you. I need gratitude, encouragement, support not to grow exhausted.
Returning to kindness and compassion. Consider the physical and mental condition of elderly parents; many have old age behavioral changes and inhibitions (neurological changes in the brain), lack of empathic feelings, diminished motherly or fatherly feelings, survival stress (to get through the day), are flushing (or drinking) down bags of medications one-two-three times daily (think about taking these medications yourself; how would that make you feel?), and many -especially the less religious elders- have no perspective other than growing older, becoming more fragile or ill. Where there used to be a heaven and a reunion with those who passed River Styx earlier, now there is just the end of a life. Surely, we can feel the frosty, biting cold of those last wintry years.
“Now you have pulled a knife from your back, it is time for some healing thoughts. We will find these by close-reading the story of Pelops”.
Let us now turn to fine art and literary inspiration for healing and nourishing our minds and souls. After that, I will conclude with practical and philosophical reflections. Greek mythology has it all; it never fails to morally support us with profound psychological insights and supportive philosophical thoughts. Parental disloyalty towards a child is narrated in the haunting story of Tantalus and Pelops.
Tantalus was a son of Zeus and Plouto and as such he was welcomed for dinner at Zeus’ table at Olympus, the abode of the gods ad the site of the throne of Zeus.
There, he is said to have abused Zeus’ hospitality. Even more punishable, Tantalus offers his son, Pelops, as a sacrifice (gore warning; but happy ending). Tantalus cuts up Pelops, boils him, and serves him up as a banquet for the Olympian gods in order to test their omniscience. The gods immediately become aware of the gruesome nature of the menu. Goddess Clotho is quickly ordered by Zeus to bring the poor boy to life again. She collects the parts and together with Hephaestus and Demeter revives Pelops. Pelops grows to be an extraordinarily handsome man.
Tantalus is punished by standing in a pool of water with overhanging fruits; he cannot eat the fruits nor drink the water. Tantalus will forever feel deprived to fulfill his hunger and thirst. This has become to know a Tantalean Punishment, referring to good things in life that are there to grab but forever elude our grasp. In English the word tantalize refers to an object of desire that is out of reach.
Practical & Philosophical Reflections
It is deeply tragic that sometimes a parent cuts up a child, be it metaphorical. Yet, the classical story of Pelops has a surprising happy ending. The child is revived by the loving and crafty care of a few Olympian gods and goddesses. The story could have had a bad ending with Pelops not being able to ‘put together again’. Like Humpty Dumpty who -despite ‘the work of all king’s horses and all king’s men- could not be put (back) together again’.
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again
Unlike Humpty Dumpty, the story of Tantalus describes in detail how Pelops is revived. Black-smith Hephaestus and motherly, caring Demeter go through great lengths to resurrect him and even forge a new shoulder made of ivory. The assembling process takes time, creativity, and resources which can be interpreted as ‘don’t expect this healing phase to be rushed’. This contrasts with the fate of Humpty Dumpty, standing symbol for a person or thing that is toppled over, broken, and irreparable. It stands to reason that by stressing that Pelops is brought back to life and becomes an remarkable handsome man, the hurt inflicted on a child by a parent can be turned around with the help of caring others.
We have moved away from believing in Greek gods a long time ago. However, that should not inhibit us from replacing the omnipotent gods with loving and supportive friends. They will offer a shoulder to cry on and over time that helps to rebuild self-esteem. You have done nothing wrong. There are thousands, if not millions of Pelopses, well-meaning sons and daughters who have been scolded, undermined, or punished, even disinherited. It has hurt them and has damaged their ideas about their parent’s character.
Since I came to learn that at one time in your life you can become Pelops, I was told that siblings and caretakers should be wary and cautious of taking sides of their geriatric parent when they fall out with somebody. Don’t enable them; geriatric elders have certain age-related behavioral patterns. Like crabbiness, lack of empathy, anger and depression, and a feeling of having been robbed. They are aware of their diminishing auditory, visual, kinetic, and cognitive abilities and this translates into the feeling of insecurity, misgivings, or even mistrust. Not being able to find something, like having lost their wallet or fountain pen, these surely have been stolen! No, they haven’t been stolen. Double check robbing stories, gossip, and avoid believing slander. Only those families whose children and caretakers take a united stand are able to navigate through the choppy waters of caring for an elderly parent.
Now that you know that you are not alone, Pelops does not need to be your middle name. Keep a healthy distance from your elderly parent if abuse happens or continues. I know about a geriatric nurse who advises family members not to visit their demented parents too often of even not at all because ‘They do not notice and it will hurt you’. These are sobering and somber thoughts, but one must be realistic.
I hope this blog-essay will help easing emotional hurt. Feel invited to add your advice or insights.
Paula Kuitenbrouwer, Drs. M.A. is owner of mindfuldrawimg.com. She works as a commission artist in the Netherlands. Her art shop is at Etsy and her portfolio at Instagram.
Paula majored in Philosophy at UU and UvA and won a few essay contests during her study. Paula worked as an editor and teacher in the Netherlands and abroad. For a decade she home educated her daughter in various countries. Currently, she lives in the Netherlands with her husband whilst her daughter studies abroad.
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