As narcissistic parents age, their offspring (ACONs: Adult Children of Narcissists) are faced with one of life’s toughest choices. It’s fraught with emotion and riddled with guilt.
What do we owe narcissistic parents, if anything, during their old, infirm years? Are we obligated to care for them? Welcome them into our home? What if we’re No Contact with them…what then?
Many cultures and religions maintain that children should care for their parents in their old age, just as their parents cared for them in their childhood. Theoretically, it sounds good. But what if your parents are narcissists? What if they made your life a living Hell? What then?
Do narcissists mellow as they age? Actually, some of them do slightly. That’s what some readers have told me. Others, on the other hand, report that narcissists get worse in old age. Even the onset of Alzheimer’s does nothing to soften them, in fact, it can even make them more cruel.
You didn’t ask to be born. None of us do. It wasn’t our idea. We just came along. And, assuming you’re alive, your parents must’ve put forth some effort. Food. Clothes. Shelter. Schooling. The self-absorbed neglectful narcissistic parent (vanilla) does the minimum required and makes sure their child feels beholden and guilty for having their human needs met, however badly. The engulfing narcissistic parent (chocolate) goes over and above and makes sure their child feels beholden and guilty for everything their parents insisted on doing for them and to them, whether the child wanted it or not.
Either way, being raised by a narcissistic parent leaves you feeling beholden and (false) guilty. But you shouldn’t! It wasn’t your idea nor choice to be born. Like my friend’s Baby Tony. He was very much wanted. He doesn’t ask for anything except his bottle and a dry diaper. His parents choose to go above-and-beyond to keep him happy and healthy because they want to do it.
But he doesn’t need to grovel. He doesn’t need to feel beholden. He doesn’t need to feel guilty for existing and having normal human needs. For needing food, milk, clothes, warmth, shelter. His parents had to provide all those things for themselves anyways long before he came along. Welcoming him into their home and meeting his normal human needs is their moral obligation for choosing to have a child. I don’t think Tony owes them a thing, except simple gratitude. But he’s not obligated to them. He doesn’t “owe” them. He doesn’t need to repay them. He’s not beholden. And he certainly should never feel guilty for existing!
That goes double if your parents are narcissists. They may’ve made your childhood a living Hell, your teens an I’m-surprised-I-made-it-through-alive horror and your twenties a minefield of misery, but now they expect you to welcome them and their walker into your spare bedroom until they kick the bucket. And seeing how evil people live forever, it may be several decades.
I. DON’T. THINK. SO. They forfeited any claim to care in their old age when they fill-in-the-blank:
Perhaps they beat you, slapped you, tied you up, starved you.
Perhaps they’ve verbally abused you for years. Decades.
Perhaps they’ve been monetarily sponging off you for years.
Perhaps they’ve done their best to separate you, alienate you from your spouse.
Perhaps they’re doing their best to alienate your children from you, encouraging your kids to disrespect you.
Perhaps, oh! The list the goes on and on. But in every case, your parents forfeited any claim to elder care when they did all-of-the-above. They worked hard to kill any love you had for them. For all intents and purposes, you are dead to them. And a dead child can’t care for an elderly parent. Your aged parents can and will shift for themselves, somehow, someway just as they would if you had actually passed away before them. Don’t let their “Hopeless, Helpless” act fool you!
In my case, my family already played their Care-For-Your-Elders credit. They exhausted it. There’s nothing left. I cared for them from the time I was seventeen. Vividly, I remember my growing-up being put on hold while the focus shifted to caring for my parents. Parentification they call it. It became my responsibility to play the jester to make my depressed parent happy. I played the counselor to help my anxiety/panic attack stricken parent learn to reconnoiter the outside world alone again. And I spent my twenties driving them to doctor appointments, chemotherapy appointments, MRI scans, dentist appointments, etc. No wonder they wouldn’t let me move out! I came in handy…and did housework too! Oh, they could have cared for themselves, but no. Not only did I do all that, I even paid for the great privilege of living with them. What a sap!
And, like the Grade A, #1 sap I am, when they finally “allowed” me to move out of their home at the rootin’ tootin’ old age of thirty-one, what did I do? With a bitter taste in my mouth and my heart in my boots, I turned right around and invited them to live in the upstairs suite of my townhome in their old age. After all, as their only child, I felt I had an obligation. “Well, there goes freedom, privacy and making any noise after 9 p.m.,” I thought even as Mom promised to be “the perfect roommate.” (Just to make sure, they made me take out a life insurance policy naming them as the beneficiaries so they could pay off my mortgage and own my house outright if I died. They were already the beneficiaries of my Will.)
Luckily, it never came to that. I got married. Quit the job I hated. Moved five hours away. Bought a house with no spare rooms. Discovered narcissism. Changed my Will, my life insurance and canceled their Power of Attorney. And went No Contact.
As hard, as cold, as heartless, as ruthless as this may sound, my parents are utterly on their own in old-age. They worked hard to alienate me and I bore it all with a smile.
I will not allow them to ruin one more year, month, day, hour or minute of my life nor my husband’s life. Even if they try to be good, they can’t help themselves. The dysfunction is ingrained in every cell of their bodies, every synapse of their brain. They don’t know anything else! Were they to move in with me, my home would go from calm and comfortable to high-strung-at-fever-pitch. I’d feel watched in the nicest possible way. Judged in the nicest possible way for my family is very, very, very “nice.” The polite-yet-intrusive questions would start. They’d disapprove of my new non-smiley resting facial expression. My tone of voice. My clothes and earrings. My swearing. My occasional glass of wine. The movies I watch and music I listen to. The art I admire. I’m not the person they raised me to be anymore, tut, tut…and I’m proud of it. I’m real, flaws and all. They’re fake.
Let me tell you a little story. Do you remember Liesl from The Sound of Music? The role was played by the wonderful Charmian Carr. Her mom was an alcoholic. She delighted in triangulating her daughters against each other, trying to ruin the bonds of sisterhood by suggesting petty jealousies where none actually existed.
But it backfired. Her daughters bonded together and told her, “Mom, we love you. But we will have nothing to do with you until you stop drinking.” They stuck to their guns too. They went No Contact. Their mother kept drinking…and her esophagus split wide open. She died a lonely, horrific death with no one to hold her hand. Should her daughters feel guilty for not bringing her into their homes, caring for her, saving her from herself? Absolutely not. She got the old age she worked hard to have: alone with a ruptured esophagus.
And the same goes for narcissists. They worked hard to have the lonely old age they deserve. Leave ’em alone. You don’t owe them a thing.