Caring for Aging Loved Ones After a Dysfunctional Childhood

Am I obligated to take care of my parents even though they hurt me in many ways during my growing-up years? Our family was really dysfunctional. Now they're old, feeble and increasingly unable to look after themselves, and I'm not sure how I feel about getting involved in caring for them given our past. What do you think I should do?

To a certain extent our answer – and to an even greater extent your reaction to it – will depend on your personal orientation toward the Christian faith. Do you consider yourself a believer? If so, you’re probably familiar with God’s commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). There is no exemption clause for those whose parents fall short of the ideal.

Honor implies choosing to give respect and care to our elders – not grudgingly, but from a principle of love and out of genuine concern for their needs. True honor is placing the highest value on our loved ones regardless of whether they deserve it or not. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit empowers our efforts when we decide to follow His will. Once we have made the decision to honor our elders, feelings of affection often follow.

Perhaps you’ll find it encouraging to realize that you’re not alone. Many of us have been impacted by dysfunction and a disregard for the Word of God in our family of origin. Remnants of pain from childhood may still affect you. You may look back, even at the recent past, and remember only abuse and neglect from the people you are now supposed to honor. This is a tough assignment. Tough, but not impossible.

How does one carry out God’s commandment in a situation like yours? To begin with, you may find it helpful to remember that only the Lord fully understands the circumstances that molded your parents’ character. You can’t change those events or alter another person’s life choices. But you can refuse to give their problems power over you. You can make up your mind to find the good in your parents, no matter how meager or unrefined, and to honor them in spite of their flaws. In other words, you can choose to live in God’s light and respond with a Christ-like attitude.

Second, you can realize that honoring and caring for your parents doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with everything they say, accepting their negative behavior, giving in to their every demand, or neglecting the needs of your spouse or children in order to be with them every moment. Nor does it mean that you are obligated to tackle every care-giving task by yourself. Honor means doing what you can within a realistic framework to live at peace with your aging parents, even if you don’t have great personal affection for one another. It means making wise choices that will keep your conscience clear. It involves a decision to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice,” and to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). When you seek to honor, God will show you the way to do it.

If you’d like to discuss the specifics of your family situation, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


Caring for Aging Parents

Peacemaking for Families

The Peacemaker

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging

Caregiver Action Network

Conflict Resolution

You May Also Like