At Pan Society we often talk about elders in an idealized way, but we know life isn’t ideal. We don’t live in a perfect world. Life’s pretty messy. What happens when our elders are not nice people? Or maybe they are even toxic! So, what do you do when you have an abusive elderly parent? Are you obligated to take care of them?
Why We Care For the Elderly
First let’s look at why we care for the elderly. The Riddle of the Sphinx was “What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?” The answer is Man. A baby crawls on all fours. Adults and children walk upright. The elderly sometimes walks with a cane. This is a perfect metaphor for the wheel of human life.
Babies are the future. They come into the world totally helpless. They rely on others for everything – food, hygiene, social stimulation, instruction, and discipline. Children are special because they just came from the Otherworld. They carry wisdom inside of them that we can learn from.
In a healthy world, adults care for their children and rear them to be self-sufficient adults capable of reproduction so that the species can continue.
When the health of the parents decline and they become less capable of providing for their own needs, their (now grown) children care for them. In indigenous societies, the elders care for the children so that the parents can work. Elders also have wisdom that comes from a lifetime of living that they share with the family.
That’s reciprocity. The adults in the middle are the strongest and most capable so they carry the very young, old, and sick.
Why Animists Care For Our Elderly
Love is the glue that connects the babies, adults, and elderly. Love creates belonging. The only thing that differentiates caring for our elders as a burden or a pleasure is love.
When you love your parents, you want to be there for them. You can’t imagine someone else doing that job for you. Although it’s incredibly hard work and emotionally taxing, you realize that they saw you into the world. You want to see them out.
In the process of caring for them, you learn about what it means to be an elder. You learn how to give up power, trust others, surrender, and finally – how to die. It’s really about engaging intimately with the circle of life.
This is not a one way transaction. We understand that the very young and old are closer to the Otherworld. They have wisdom to share with us. We value that, so we nurture and respect them for what they give us.
In reality, that’s not where many of us live today. When there is no love, no wisdom, the adults aren’t very self sufficient themselves, or there aren’t enough able bodied adults to do the job, the whole system can collapse.
Making the Choice
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork and have the same understanding of why we care for the elderly, let’s look at helping you make the choice for whether or not caring for your abusive parents makes sense for you.
The first thing to consider is sovereignty. There is no right or wrong. It’s your choice. You can do what you want. If you want to, do it. If you don’t, don’t. If that feels good, you can stop there. Choice made!
But for most of us, it’s not that simple. We want to be in alignment with our values, and our values say that it’s our duty.
And we have a duty to ourselves too – a duty to be healthy, high functioning people. When we put ourselves in a toxic situation, that takes a toll. So, there may be a conflict between the duty to our parents and the duty to ourselves. One way to honor your both values is to provide monetarily but limit or withhold your physical presence. There are probably other ways to create a win/win.
Or maybe we aren’t sovereign. We can’t take care of ourselves. Or maybe we have just enough to care for ourselves and nothing extra. If that’s the case, perhaps the way that you care is by visiting or calling them on the phone. So you care for their emotional needs, but not their physical needs.
Your parents are the connection to the ancestors. They are the doorway to the past. Your children are the future. If the past, present, and future are not connected, the spiritual foundation and family line fractures. If you can heal this in the physical world, it’s the healthiest thing to do. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you take your parents into your home and care for them. I think, though, that it almost certainly means that you come to a place of acceptance and forgiveness for who they have been. It’s for your peace of mind that you do this, not anyone else’s.
In this and all things, sovereignty and connection dance. The more independence you choose, the less connection you have. We have to give up some things to be connected. We have to let go of some things to be our own people. So keep in mind what you are getting and giving. If it feels balanced and good, go for it. If it doesn’t, get creative. Think of what it would take to something work.
It’s Your Call
Everyone’s situation is unique. Some parents have different needs than others. Some are more capable than others. Each adult has different resources, support, and coping skills. Someone who has done a lot of healing will be more ready and able to take on caring for an abusive elderly parent than someone who has done none. Having dependent children in the house may also be a factor.
Being modern animists is not easy. We are trying to live in relationship with people while while being in a social structure that hasn’t been in alignment with Nature for a long time. The choices that we make can continue that brokenness or they can repair it. Some things we will be able to fix for ourselves and some we won’t. As long as we’re in alignment with our values and moving in the direction of love, we’re doing the best that we can.