Info Caregiving and Complicated Family Dynamics

Caregiving for an aging, ill parent is a common, though generally gruesome, experience. And, witnessing and experiencing family violence is also a painfully common reality. As a culture, we have slowly learned to be able to talk more about each phenomenon thus removing some of the pain, isolation, stigma and turmoil of each. Yet, nowhere do we really talk deeply about what it means to care for an aging and ill parent who also happens to have been an abuser.

According to The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP (2009), 65.7 million caregivers make up 29% of the U.S. adult population providing care to someone who is ill, disabled or aged. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 43.5 million of adult family caregivers care for someone 50+ years of age and 14.9 million care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia (2012). And, caregiving is gendered: an estimated 66% of caregivers are female.

So, what about caregiving that takes place amidst complicated family dynamics such as abuse and control? It is important to acknowledge how common family violence is. Most acts of domestic violence go unreported so the statistics on this are even harder to decipher. One in four women report having experienced domestic violence. Two million injuries and 1,300 deaths are caused each year as a result of domestic violence, and more than three million children in the United States witness domestic violence in their homes every year (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence 2015).

It’s one thing to know the prevalence of these issues; it’s another thing when the magnitude of it all hits home. My adoring and abusive dad was very sick for almost eight years, and this gave me time to reflect on and wrestle with the complexity of his behavior and personality and the effects it had on me. As an only child with parents who split up very late in life, in their sixties and seventies, I was enmeshed in other complicated ways of caring for my dad after the divorce.

It was in the context of caregiving and writing about it that I have had to think about my resistance—to my dad’s abuse, his affection, his illnesses, and ultimately his death, and I have also had to think about all the things that drew me close to him—to his abuse, his affection, his illnesses and his death. Yes, precisely the same things that repelled me had gravitational pull.

Family violence is a dynamic process, not an event, that takes varying shapes and forms, often over years, and it can be lodged in caregiving. Caregiving, also a process and not an event, can be lodged in a context of family violence.

Years ago, I shared with a colleague in film studies my idea for writing a book about these intertwined phenomena, and he said, “I can imagine if it were a film, the trailer would be, ‘Caring for the parent who didn’t care for us.’” It surely sounded like a slick line. Over the years of describing this project to others, they have summed it up much the same way as my colleague, attempting to package it neatly and absolutely, with not much gray area. It’s as though people interpret that there is care, and then there’s the absence of care.

But, the thing is, that rendering is less than truthful. I wanted to learn to care well and lovingly for my dad in spite of, and maybe even because of, his history of abuse.

Caregiving and family violence are each predicated on dimensions of ambivalence. Of what it means to stand on a precipice of love and fear. And what it means to navigate betweenforgiveness and blame, care and disregard, and resilience and despair.  It’s about figuring out how we might come to live our own lives better in and through grief and healing.

For me, healing from abuse has been multi-pronged—besides therapy which I think is profoundly useful, I have found healing through teaching and researching about family violence, counseling abusers, working with survivors, and writing about it. But, far and away, the most significant healing has occurred for me in two ways—first, perhaps surprisingly, actually being nestled in the uncomfortable, painful and intimate caregiving relationship with my dad— and then writing about that creatively in memoir. I never would have imagined that healing from abuse could have occurred in the context of caregiving, but for me, it did.

A childhood friend told me that the most meaningful advice I had given him when he was caring for his father with dementia was to make new memories. Both caregiving relationships and painful family dynamics present us with this redemptive, healing challenge.