Is it a Burden? – Caring for Parents When Your Relationship is Strained

One third of all Americans are unexpectedly caring for their senior parents. Many of these families had strained relationships before their adult children assumed the role of caregiver, yet these adult children still feel it’s their duty to help their ailing senior parents. This is a topic that is covered by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Michelle Boyaner, who wrote and directed “It’s Not a Burden,” the film that was spotlighted this month on The Today Show with Hoda and Jenna.

“It’s Not a Burden” is a documentary showcasing family relationships if “the roles have reversed” and the parent has become the one who needs attention and help with the most basic things in life. In the film, some parents live in assisted living, others are in nursing homes, and some have moved in with their children. Regardless of where they reside, the families featured all receive a major part of their care from their kids, some of whom they haven’t spoken to in years, but who still step up and take care of their parents in their time of need.

Presented as a series of vignettes, the 87-minute film aims to “start the conversation” about the diverse ways seniors and their family caregivers confront the realities of aging and the way familial relationships evolve as a result.

Inspiring People with Her Own Story

In “It’s Not a Burden,” Michelle Boyaner interviewed dozens of adult children caring for aging and/or ailing parents to capture the truth of both their good times and struggles together. She also shares her own journey about caring for her long-divorced aging parents, including her mother Elaine, who abandoned the family and left then 19-year-old Michelle to help raise her 5 younger siblings. Elaine is now faced with dementia, and her father Morris, once an Aerospace Engineer, is now a hoarder unable to navigate his own world.

After the death of her sister, Michelle became the primary care provider for her parents, assisting them with their physical and mental health challenges. Michelle realized from her experience that caregiving is often scary and overwhelming, but it isn’t without its rewards. For instance, the compassion and love required to care for her mother helped heal a decades-old rift between the pair.

Michelle knew that she couldn’t be alone in her caregiving situation. With America experiencing its largest senior population ever, there must be thousands if not millions of people facing the same issues. So instead of just sharing her story, she decided to talk to other adults in her position.

Another Caregiver in a Conflicted Role

Another featured family is Maxine and Esther, a 60-year old daughter and her 96-year old mother who was once a comedian and actor specializing in vaudevillian performances in Pittsburgh. Maxine ventured out to Los Angeles with her sister and had a successful career as a television writer and producer and, during that time, had a strained relationship with her mother who lived on the other side of the country.

Similar to Michelle, Maxine’s relationship with her mother only improved when she fell into to the caregiving role. “There have been lots of books and TV shows about mothers and daughters and how that relationship can be very strained,” Maxine said. “We went through all of that for every reason because we were both headstrong and were in the same business and wanted those kinds of things. The last five or six years of my mother’s life was almost a do-over for me.”

Maxine sacrificed her career and moved across the country to care for her mother, who suffered from dementia, until she could no longer do so and had to move her mother into a long-term care facility. She said it was tough at first to watch clips of her mother in “It’s Not a Burden,” but now sees the documentation of her last years as “very healing.”

Find out more about Michelle and Maxine and the other families featured and learn how you can watch the documentary, “It’s Not a Burden” here.

Conflicted Relationships Make Caregiving More Difficult

Some parents may have been neglectful, mean, absent, or abusive. When they need care, it can put you in a difficult situation.

According to the Michelle, if you’re struggling with making decisions about caring for parents who didn’t care for you, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Many adult children have complicated relationships with their aging parents, especially when there’s a history of conflict.

The reason she created “It’s Not a Burden” was to provide hope and a sense of community to those in situations similar to hers. She hopes to tell others that despite feeling lonely, swamped by chores, doctor appointments, and their own emotions, they’re really not alone, and that there are many people that they can lean on and learn from.

Here are some tips and resources to handle the situation when there’s a negative or conflicted history between you and your aging parent:

  1. Get help working through complicated feelings:

Adding a negative or conflicted relationship with your parent on top of the typical stress and emotional conflict that comes with being a caregiver makes it even harder to maintain your emotional well-being. Talking with a counselor or therapist can help you work through the strong feelings and difficult decisions that come up when you’re caring for parents who didn’t care for you. Therapists can be especially helpful if you’re struggling with tough decisions such as whether or not to be involved in your parent’s care, how to limit your involvement in their care, or how to set healthy boundaries.

  1. Stay involved, but consider hiring a professional to manage their care:

When you’re not comfortable stepping away entirely, but also aren’t able to be closely involved in your parent’s care, hiring someone to fill the role may be a good option.

A geriatric care manager (also known as an aging life care specialist), for instance, is an aging care expert who will help make sure your parent gets the care they need. They can handle the day-to-day issues that inevitably come up and be a buffer between you and your parent. These services can get expensive, but it may be worth it if it gives you peace of mind. Please see our list of Trusted Referrals of Other Senior Serving Professionals for geriatric care managers and others who can help.

  1. Get support from others in similar situations

Caregiving is an isolating experience and it’s natural to feel like you’re the only one in this type of situation. Joining a caregiver support group can be helpful because it validates your experiences and gives you the chance to vent. It’s a relief to know that what you’re going through is normal and that you’re not the only one with these feelings – negative or positive.

Whether you join an in-person or an online support group, chances are high that you’ll meet plenty of other caregivers who have conflicted relationships with their parents.

  1. Read books that offer helpful advice

There are many caregiving books that specifically address caring for parents who didn’t care for you.

Reading these types of books can give you helpful perspective on your situation and help you find solutions, learn coping skills, and make tough decisions.

Some book suggestions include:

When You Can No Longer Provide the Care a Loved One Needs

In the documentary, “It’s Not a Burden,” most of those who were cared for had dementia, and all of them eventually needed more help than their adult child could provide.

As a caregiver for a loved one, be sure to regularly reassess what you can offer and what assistance your loved one needs. If it’s getting too hard to fulfill certain needs, you can ask family members for help or consider other options, such as hiring paid caregivers to take on these tasks. If necessary, you may need to consider or at least plan for another living arrangement that would help you better meet your loved one’s needs.

Nursing homes in the Metro DC area cost $12,000-$15,000 a month, which can be catastrophic for most families. Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection is the process of protecting your assets from having to be spent down in connection with entry into a nursing home, while also helping ensure that you or your loved one get the best possible care and maintain the highest possible quality of life, whether at home, in an assisted living facility or adult group home, or in a nursing home. Please know that we are always available for an initial consultation.

Elder Law Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Law Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Law Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law DC: 202-587-2797
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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.