Minding Our Elders: Narcissistic parents pose special challenge to adult children

Dear Carol: I grew up with a mentally ill, completely self-absorbed mother and absent father. With the help of therapists over the years, I’ve survived and even done well, but childhood pain never leaves us.

Now, my mother, who has been diagnosed as narcissistic, is reaching the age where her physical health and her ability to make decisions are both declining. She’s had a number of mini-strokes and extremely high blood pressure. I’ve done all of the recommended things I can do to convince her to get powers of attorney assigned — if not to me, her only child, then to an attorney — but she won’t do it. She tells me that this would just give me an opportunity to “off” her, which is, of course, ridiculous. Still, she won’t budge and considering her age, 79, and her health, it’s scary.

I’ve worked with doctors and attorneys, and short of gaining guardianship, which isn’t likely at this time, there seems to be little I can do. My question is how do I live with this without emotionally going down myself? My husband is supportive, but I need more. — TY.

Dear TY: I can only imagine what you are going through. It’s got to be agonizing since though you’ve learned to live your adult life without having a stable mother, you feel responsible for her welfare now that she’s entering her elder years.

You’ve done or are doing most everything that I could recommend to the children of aging parents in a more normal situation. However, it seems, if my mail is any gauge, that having a narcissistic parent — diagnosed or not — is more common than I would have thought.

I do have some resources that could help you and others in your situation, at least I hope so. The first is courtesy of geriatrician Leslie Kernisan, whose website Better Health While Aging (BHWA) offers hundreds of free articles and podcast episodes and may be the only resource of its kind offered by a physician who specializes in the health of older adults. Full disclosure: I’m a paid moderator for Dr. Kernisan’s Helping Older Parents Membership Community.

When asked about how to manage narcissistic older parents or those who are otherwise unusually difficult, Dr. Kernisan recommends the book “Coping with Your Difficult Older Parent: A Guide for Stressed-Out Children” by Grace Lebow and Barbara Kane. She also has an episode featuring Barbara Kane on the BHWA podcasts, which are all free.

My other suggestion is that you consider reading “Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing” by Elissa Altman. Beautifully written, sad yet often funny and always riveting, this is a tale that you will certainly relate to. Both books are available in bookstores as well as online.

TY, stay with your therapy sessions because you will need all of the support you can get. I hope that listening to the podcast and reading the books will be of some help. My heart goes out to you.

Email at carolbradleybursack@mindingourelders.com.


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