In stable and supportive families, caregiving can produce
unexpected rewards, often strengthening ties between those who give
care and those who receive it.
But what happens in troubled families, where relationships are
strained and normal bonds of affection are frayed? Is caregiving
possible when an adult child who was abused or neglected by parents
long ago now needs to care for those parents in their later years?
That's the question Ellen Eichelbaum of Northport, N.Y., has
faced in the past 18 months. All through her childhood and young
adulthood, she says, her parents subjected her to what she describes
as "a tremendous amount" of physical abuse, coupled with emotional
abuse and neglect. Explaining that she was not a submissive child,
she adds, "I always had something to say. My parents couldn't deal
Now her widowed mother, an octogenarian, needs assistance. The
daughter is putting aside, as best she can, deep hurts as she makes
daily decisions about how to respond as a caregiver. In the process,
she is learning lessons in compassion, forgiveness, and maybe even
Nearly 34 million Americans provide unpaid care for someone over
the age of 50, according to a 2004 survey by the National Alliance
for Caregiving. No one knows how many of these caregivers come from
family situations similar to Eichelbaum's. But as a gerontologist,
Eichelbaum knows there are many more.
"It's more common than people think it is," she says.
Although married and the mother of two daughters in their 30s,
Eichelbaum performs her caregiving duties without support from her
"My kids say, 'How can you do this, after what Grandma did to
you?' " she says. "I tell them, 'I do this for Grandma because she's
my mother.' " She adds, "I do what I do in spite of what was done to
me. I am a bigger person because of it. I do what I feel God needs
me to do."
Cases of neglectful elders come in many shades of gray - most of
them not as dark as the one Eichelbaum describes. For one caregiver
in suburban Boston, who asks not to be identified, family dynamics
were shaped not by parental abuse but by her mother's absence during
her early years.
When the woman was a preschooler, her father died. Her mother,
forced to go to work, put her young daughter in an orphanage for
several years, unwittingly subjecting the little girl to harsh
treatment there. Although her mother visited on weekends, no real
bond developed between the two. …