I have received two questions asking about the difficult issue of supporting aging parents at a distance and feeling guilty.
There are a number of factors to consider here. Firstly when we are growing up we are often conditioned or trained to feel guilt when it is not appropriate. There are many ways in which this can happen, for example, imagine a child being trusted with feeding a pet, and forgetting. A parent might come home and claim the child is cruel or inconsiderate, when the reality is the parent made a mistake in trusting such a responsibility to a child because children forget things. In this case the child could feel regret at forgetting, but is made to feel guilty and uncaring which is unjust. So if we are making decisions which imply competing priorities between our family (the family we have created with a partner), and our parents feel who feel unsupported because we are living at a distance, is it appropriate to feel guilt? No, it is not. It is not because we are not setting out with an intent to undermine our parents’ security, but we are doing what is best for us and our family.
The key word here is ‘intent’. Guilt is only appropriate when we are to blame for something, and often then we do something which may have an unexpected outcome for which we feel sorry, but this is something we should regret, because there was no malicious intent. The second issue at play here is our relationship with our parents. We do not own our children; they are entrusted into our care until they can care for themselves. In the same way our parents do not own us. We have our own lives to live and need to be true to ourselves. This is because our primary relationship is with ourselves, our secondary relationship is with our partner, and our tertiary relationship is with our children and then everyone else. If we do not maintain our relationship with ourselves, all our other relationships will be affected. So if I direct my life by what is best for my parents, I will suppress my own desires, wants and needs and that will lead me to build resentment. Then my dealings with my parents will be contaminated by this resentment and frustration and I will not be completely good-willed towards them.
Worse still, is that this resentment will affect my close relationships even more, so my partnership will suffer and my children too. Whereas if I follow my own path, I have no internal tension, to contaminate these other relationships and they will feel light and clean. Better still I will be able to deal with my parents in a loving way. There is more background to this because it has also to deal with the whole issue of whether we leave home and break the parent-child relationship we have with our parents and convert it into an adult-adult relationship. If we do this successfully we move away and form our own family, and when our parents need support we come back to them because we love them and want to help. If, on the other hand, we fail to emotionally leave home and our interactions with our parents continue to be like parent-child dynamics, then when they need our help it will feel like an obligation, or a family debt being called-in, and we will feel resentful of our perceived lack of freedom and personal choice. If these are issues for us we need to seek professional help to make this transition to independent adult.
Finally if we are dealing with these issues as expressed in the letters to me, we can end up feeling we have two choices; either we stay here feeling guilty and let our parents fend for themselves, or we pack up and head home to care for them. These are of course two of the choices, but they are the two extremes. In between lie a whole raft or options, such as supporting other siblings to support your parents, or organizing and paying for external help and support, jumping on a plane and going to make an evaluation of what support is required and helping them come to terms with that and organise it. Through any of this process, they may try to make you feel guilty, or say unkind things, but the important part is that you hold onto a strategy that works well enough for you to keep on dealing with them in a loving and caring way, and that implies holding onto your own life.