Do I need to take care of my aging parents if they didn't take care of me?

For queer folks — or anyone who has a fraught relationship with their parents — the answer is complicated.

A woman taking care of her aging parent by taking her mother for a walk on the beach and holding han...
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Lately, it seems like a lot of my friends and I are going through the same thing: Our parents are getting older, and we have no idea how to deal with it. Most of us are queer, and many of us have had complicated relationships with our families, to say the least. That doesn't mean we don't want to be present and caring as our parents grow older — but it does mean we often lack the foundation of trust that some folks have.

It may seem like queer people are more out and proud than ever in American culture, and we don’t struggle for representation the same way we used to. LGBTQ+ characters on TV and in movies are increasingly common, corporations paint themselves every color of the rainbow to get at our wallets (during Pride Month, at least), and we even got a mainstream “bottom-friendly” food delivery menu this year. But while that all may be true, many queer folks still struggle to find acceptance from their families of origin.

The reality is that many LGBTQ+ people still face rejection from their parents, and that rejection takes a major toll on our health and wellbeing. It also creates a lot of feelings of resentment when it comes time to support our elderly parents. How, after all, can we be expected to take care of people who may not have taken such great care of us? I asked psychologists for their best advice on how queer people — and anyone who has a complicated parental relationship — can deal with the reality of their aging parents.

The first thing to keep in mind: “You never owe your parents anything,” Bryan Bruno, a psychotherapist in NYC and professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, tells me. Read that again: You don’t owe your parents a thing. That idea can be difficult to accept, because it runs against a lot of our cultural programming, but the bottom line is relationships aren’t tit-for-tat.

How can we be expected to take care of people who may not have taken such great care of us?

“Parental relationships should never be transactional — just because they birthed you and may or may not have taken care of you does not mean that they are ‘owed’ anything,” Bruno says. As a child, you may not have had a choice about the nature of your relationship with your parents, but you do now — and it’s crucial for your own health and that of your relationship that you feel a sense of agency. Coercion is not love.

If your own personal code of ethics dictates that you care for aging parents, pay attention to that. “If you would not be able to sleep with yourself at night knowing that you have a parent who may or may not have arrangements prepared — such as proper medical care and other pertinent aging requirements — then you have no choice but to address that guilt and decide if it is worth the pursuit of caregiving,” Bruno says.

Regardless of what you decide, though, it’s important to set boundaries. As you move into this next phase of your relationship, consider what level of involvement you want to have, both emotionally and financially. That may lead to some uncomfortable — albeit necessary — conversations. “Especially if you’re going to be heavily involved with [your parents’] care as they age, having a conversation about the future is essential to be on the same page going forward,” Bruno says.

If you do decide to engage with and help your parents as they age, make sure you have a support system in place, says Lee Phillips, a psychotherapist in New York. “You can ask your friends, community, and other family members which issues you should talk about with your aging parents since they may know your parents well,” Phillips says, adding you can also bring in someone neutral, like a therapist, to help you make decisions about how you care for your parents. This is especially important if you don’t have a large support system of your own.

“Parental relationships should never be transactional.”

And if you decide that you can’t participate in the care of aging parents, remember: That’s totally valid, and it’s normal to have complicated feelings about it. Some cultures — and subcultures — are entrenched with narratives that insist caregiving of the elderly is inextricable from being a “good person,” and it can feel difficult to opt out of those norms. But, Phillips says, those guilt-ridden messages we internalize simply aren’t true.

The reality is that trying to care for someone who has hurt you in the past can be detrimental to you now. “It can be tempting to pour everything you have into providing care for your aging parents, but this can end up being damaging to both parties,” Bruno says. “You both have needs, and providing long-term assistance to an aging parent is about finding a balance between satisfying the needs of both parties.”

The bottom line: Overextending yourself when you lack emotional or financial resources is bad for everyone involved; in that case, it’s better to find outside help if you can. Making that choice doesn’t make you a bad person, either. In fact, it makes you an emotionally healthy person. “Choosing to engage with outside resources from the family in order to protect your mental health through this process is not selfish,” Phillips says. “This is what healthy relationships look like.”

To be fair, this isn’t just a problem for queer people. “The spectrum of relationships with parents is as vast as the rainbow itself,” Brandi Garza, a psychotherapist in Texas, tells me. Many people have complicated histories and relationships with their parents. As a member of both Al-Anon and ACA — support groups for the Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families — I’ve personally heard horror stories from people of all walks of life. The effects of childhood neglect, abuse, and abandonment play out differently for everyone — and it’s often more extreme for people from marginalized groups, because they’re more likely to face systemic issues and lack access to proper resources.

The good news for queer folks is that many of us have, out of necessity, developed family ties outside our families of origin. This is the time to lean into those families we made, whether it’s to help with decision making, emotional processing, or sharing care. Queer folks are very creative when it comes to crisis management, and I feel hopeful we can help each other through each phase of our lives.