The dementia diaries.
When your parent suddenly hates you
How to deal with aggression and conflict with the elderly.
We do not talk about it. We cover it up. We feel ashamed that our once loving parent, (who everybody describes as ‘sweet’ or ‘lovely’, or makes those cooing noises about how sad it is that they are getting frail), is, behind closed doors, a spiteful old person who makes you want to cry.
Even worse, you are probably the child who has stayed the closest, done the most, been there to sort out the house, the doctor, the medication, the vacations. You are the most giving child, and the first to get the sharp end of their tongue and the jabbing criticism.
So why don’t we talk about it? It is not acceptable to tell people that your mother is being vile, or that your father makes every visit a walk into misery. As adults, it is difficult to express that you feel like a rejected child. Well, my friend, the reality is that you are. We may tell close relatives about how ‘difficult’ our parent is being. But it still feels like betrayal to say just how nasty they have been. How do you tell someone that your mother says she hates you or that your father insists you have never cared about him?
Why, why, why do they do it? Have all those years of love really turned to hate? Did they dislike you all those years and just managed to cover it up? No. You are not rejected because of whoyou are, but because of whatyou are. You never refuse a demand to get the shopping; you cannot shrug your shoulders when the call comes in that they have fallen or are unwell; you always make sure your parent has care. You are safe; you keep coming back; you take the pain and still remain.
There may also be medical reasons. Low level urinary tract infections have a truly horrible effect on older people. They become almost demonic in their behaviour and will accuse you of all manner of dreadful deeds – common accusations are stealing all their money, plotting to take their house, poisoning them, being cruel to them and your children. With acute UTIs vivid dreams and hallucinations become reality and both you and the doctors will take the brunt of a torrent of abuse and accusations. The author, when found sobbing in a hospital corridor after her mother shouted that she was ‘not my daughter any more, I’m finished with you’, was told by a kindly nurse: ‘Don’t worry, we have five old ladies a week accusing their daughters of murder!’ As the anti-biotics kick in, your parent reverts back to their normal level of behaviour, leaving you reeling in emotional pain. Did they mean it? Well, yes, at the time they did – but we have to believe it was the infection talking rather than their soul.
Another factor is the ageing brain. After age 70 the frontal cortex, the area of the brain which develops last and which holds our social filter (knowing the difference between acceptable and not, polite and rude) begins to shrink. When a little child points at an adult and announces ‘you look fat’ people are a little taken aback but forgiving of the child’s innocent gaucheness. When your mother tells you ‘you look fat in that. You are losing your looks,’ it hits you like a train. As one of our Sassitas says ‘There is no such thing as a nice old lady!
So can you stop it? No. It is part of nature and part of living in an ageing society. More and more people in their fifties are finding themselves sandwiched between parenting their own children and parenting their parents. The difference is that your children grow up and want less. Your parents just grow older and want more. However, there are some things you can do to protect yourself.
Talk: Living through these episodes, whether they are permanent or short-lived, feels like living in a dark and lonely realm. So find a friend or relative and tell them what is being said. More often than not, you will get a roll of the eye and an admission that they are facing exactly the same thing. But if they try to dismiss it with ‘Oh they don’t mean it’, ask them to just listen. You don’t need platitudes. You need empathy. If you do not have a trusted person then find a group. Societies all over the world have networks of people going through the same journey who are there to support you. Sometimes the black humour of comparing the worst saying of the week is just what you need.
Walk away: When your parent starts being unpleasant, just turn away and stop the attention. Do not try to rationalise, argue, plead, get upset in the hope it will stop the abuse. Just walk away and do not feed the situation. Leaving them for five minutes to cool-down will often curb the escalation. Then you can return and act as if nothing has happened. If they just start up where they left off then you need to move to boundaries.
Set boundaries: Just like a child, if you reinforce the behaviour then it will increase. Every time you take the abuse and stand there looking hurt or just ignoring it then you are giving the message ‘I will keep taking this and be your punch-bag.’ First check that your parent is safe, and warm, then tell them that if they keep being nasty, you are going to leave. Then follow-through. Avoid flouncing out in a temper. Cool but determined ‘mother mode’ will have far more impact.
Time out: Do you visit or call every day? If so, and it is safe to break the pattern, tell your parent you need a break from them and their behaviour and miss a day. You often find the attitude is very different when you return.
Self-care: Be kind to yourself. The spite which assaults your ears does not define you. If anything, it is a testament to your good nature. The fact that you keep taking it and keep loving and caring is a sign of your strength. Remember that sometimes. Look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are a good person and that the very parent who is now unkind, did raise you to be kind. Try any kind of techniques to calm your mind – meditation, talking, deep breathing, running. It doesn’t matter. One day this will stop and the pain will fade – leaving you with the memories of who your parent once was and the love they had, and inside still have, for you.