Do You Have to Take Care of an Abusive, Dying Parent?

Last Updated on March 19, 2021 by Cassandra Nostredame

Do you have to take care of a dying parent who never took care of you?

Legally, the answer to that question depends on where you live. Morally, I don’t think so.

Whenever you hear about someone taking care of their dying parent, you think about the grief they must be going through. The reality is often quite different. Many people have difficult, strained relationships with their parents, and some sons and daughters suffered from outright abuse. For these people, caring for a dying parent is just a new way for the parent to abuse them emotionally, financially and physically.

Do You Have to Take Care of an Abusive, Dying Parent?

The problem is that no one really talks about it. You spend your young and middle adulthood being grateful that you don’t have to live in an abusive or neglectful situation again. At some point, life throws you a curveball, and your aging parent is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Suddenly, everyone expects you to take care of them and you to feel grief over their imminent death.

Personally, I have a huge problem with this, especially since my husband and I are dealing with this situation right now. Growing up, his father (we’ll call him Thomas) was a deadbeat dad, an addict and an emotionally abusive, manipulative individual. A couple of examples of his behavior will show you what I mean:

When my husband was still a teenager, Thomas said that he came in my husband’s mother even though she told him not to, and then he told her that he’d kill her if she didn’t give him a child. This is the version, of course, that we got from Thomas. I imagine my mother-in-law’s version is even worse, but we aren’t bringing that topic up ever.

After the divorce, my husband bounced from hotels to living with family members to hide from Thomas. Thomas had threatened to kill my mother-in-law for trying to keep his son away, so she was in fear for her life. My husband’s earliest memories involve hiding behind his mother when his father was there.

Now, my father-in-law quit using drugs and alcohol, married a different woman and even started volunteering, so he’s not 100% the same. He hasn’t changed a lot though. Since his diagnosis, he’s started threatening to cut off his oxygen whenever he doesn’t get his way. He’s brought at least one nurse to tears by threatening to do this and to die because of her. We know this story because he was proud of his behavior and told us about it.

For the last decade, my father-in-law has only called us when he wanted to do something for him. More recently, we’ve taken care of him two days a week. Because that took away 20 to 40% of our work availability each week (we have a son, my husband works a weekend job and the pandemic shut down the preschool), we ended up losing $1,000 a month, turning down clients and essentially destroying my husband’s business that he built over multiple years.

We tried to switch to just one day, but Thomas calls anyway or shows up at our house (until recently, he was driving on morphine). His wife recently suggested that we take care of him because she doesn’t want to reduce her hours at work, even though she’s eligible to retire and hasn’t had to reduce her client list at all.

So now, what do we do? What do other children do in situations like ours?

What the Experts Say

The reason I’m sharing this story is that it seems like a lot of people have encountered this kind of problem. When I was trying to search for articles on this topic, one of the first ones that popped suggested that, if your parent was emotionally or physically abusive you didn’t have to personally care for them—you could just pay someone to do it instead.

Uh, what? Are you kidding me here?

Someone seriously recommended that you should basically let an abuser take your childhood and your adulthood. This is just wrong on so many levels.

As a parent myself, my goal is to save for retirement so that my son never has to care for me. I wouldn’t want to take away his life like that. In general, I think most parents agree. While there might be times when you absolutely need help, I think most parents would rather let their children be happy and allow them to flourish.

Thankfully, some of the expert advice is better. In this article, they talk about how high depression is among caregivers who were abused by their parents and still take care of their parents anyway. While the article suggests caring for an abusive, dying parent could be a way to heal and reestablish a new relationship, it also mentions that taking care of an abusive parent also allows them to abuse you all over again.

Specifically, the article talked about how abusers will try to brush off the abuse or say that you have to get over it because family ties are stronger. I come from a large family with a lot of manipulative people in it, and I can tell you one thing: the only people in my family who say that you have to do something because you’re family are the manipulative ones. The kind, good-natured family members never have to manipulate or guilt-trip you.

If you want to do something without putting yourself in an abusive situation, you can hire a geriatric care manager (if you have the money). Another option? appoint a guardian if your parent is no longer mentally capable of making their own decisions.

Legal Requirements and Filial Responsibility Laws

If you are terribly, terribly unlucky, you may live in one of the nearly two dozen states that have filial responsibility you may be legally required to care for your parents. For example, in Pennsylvania, you are legally required to take care of your parents unless the parent abandoned you for at least 10 years. If your parent disappeared for 9 years of your childhood, then you still have to pay for their care.

If you do live in one of these states, you could be hit with a massive bill from their nursing home or medical facilities after they die. Because of this, you should see if you live in one of these states and plan appropriately. While you might not have a moral obligation to care for an abusive, dying parent, you do have a financial and legal responsibility in these states.

It could be worse. In China, children are legally required to visit their parents. For abused children, this is a horrible requirement. For non-abused children, this is legislation for a family matter that shouldn’t be necessary anyway. If you were a good parent and a good person, your child will most likely want to see you. And even if they don’t, forcing them will only further break down your relationship.

I’m not personally against caring for your parents in general. While she wouldn’t be able to live with us ever, we would consider helping with a utility bill or phone bill if my mother-in-law came up short some month. (In this instance, living with us can never happen for multiple reasons, but the primary one being that the sound of foam earplugs shifting is too loud for her, and we are exponentially louder than that). My parents, while I disagree with them on many things, were generally good parents and often went above and beyond what they were required to do. They live in a different state and wouldn’t want to live with us ever, but we’d also consider helping out with bills if they needed it.

Our main issue is with providing care for an emotionally abusive parent. The last time we tried seeing him just one day a week, he called the next day when he was in respiratory distress to guilt trip my husband into missing his first day of work and quitting his job. Of course, because he spent four months demanding constant attention, we can no longer miss work unless we plan on being homeless.

In our case, it might work out. Because my husband is working two jobs until his old job ends, we have at least a month before we can be expected to visit at all. Even after that, we will both be working full-time hours.

After that? We don’t know what to do. Thomas doesn’t listen if we say no. He was told he had weeks to live four or five months ago (at least, that’s what he told us), and he’s seemed significantly better lately. We spent more time than we could actually afford to spend with him for months, so we personally feel like his wife could handle the same impact on her work schedule that was demanded of us. However, neither of us is particularly good at just saying this—and even when we do, Thomas ignores anything that is said if he doesn’t agree with it. We don’t want to tell a dying man that he’s the problem, but we may eventually have to if we want to keep our own little family healthy and safe.