Caring for Estranged Parents: 3 Important Considerations

When an estranged parent needs care, consider key factors and set boundaries before becoming their caregiver

When an estranged parent needs care, adult children must make difficult decisions about potentially being a caregiver and on the boundaries of the new relationship. Nurse Rebecca Rushing from FirstLight Home Care shares advice on 3 important considerations.


After years or decades of separation from an estranged parent, the choice to bring them back into their life when the parent needs care can be one of the toughest that an adult child faces.

Adult children may feel the responsibility to become the primary caregiver for an aging parent, but it’s not automatically the best or only option.

That isn’t to say that adult children can’t or shouldn’t take care of aging parents if they’ve been estranged.

Rather, they should try to understand all the options that are available and have a plan that works for where they and their parents are in the relationship.

Making a thoughtful, informed decision about the level of involvement significantly increases the chances that emotional and physical needs are met.

Start with these 3 important considerations to help create a stable, long-term care situation that works for everyone involved.


First, start with why

Before becoming an estranged parent’s caregiver, adult children should make sure they understand the structure of the caregiving relationship.

A good way to start is to ask “why?”

Why did they and their aging parent become estranged? What circumstances led to the parent needing care? And why do they feel the way they do about becoming their parent’s caregiver?

The answers to these questions can bring up deep, emotional underlying issues and can place added strain on the caregiver.

According to Dr. Marion Somers, author of “Elder Care Made Easier,” in an interview with NPR: “When an older person gets to the point of needing help and these issues have not been addressed either by the senior or their adult child, all of these issues come to the surface and manifest themselves in one way or the other.”

For adult children, understanding these issues can help them determine if a family caregiver role is right for them and right for their parent. 

In some cases, such as relationships with a history of abuse or neglect, bringing the parent back into the caregiver’s life full-time may not be the best solution for all involved. In these cases, care from a professional or care community might be a better fit.


Next, establish the appropriate level of contact

After understanding the role and responsibilities in their unique caregiving situation, adult children should determine the appropriate level of contact between themselves and the estranged parent.

Depending on the circumstances, it may not be appropriate to become closely involved.

Others may find that caregiving can be a means of reconciliation, overcoming years of tension and negative energy. They may find that greater involvement in the lives of their parents can mend broken bonds.

However, caring for an estranged parent rarely goes as smoothly as one would hope.

But setting and communicating clear boundaries ahead of time gives families a much greater chance at reconciling differences and rebuilding the fractured relationship.

Of course, there may be complicating factors. 

Issues such as substance addiction and abusive behaviors can cause problems in the relationship even if clear boundaries have been defined.

Serious issues like these can indicate that less direct caregiving from an adult child and more reliance on professional care services is needed.

These certainly aren’t situations where a one-size-fits-all approach will work. Finding an appropriate level of contact is critical in situations of estrangement.

And, if possible, adult children should try to have these difficult conversations about care with their parent and other family members before it’s actually needed.


Lastly, understand the emotional aspect

In a fractured family, everyone involved can have deep emotional needs that haven’t been met.

A parent’s abuse, absence, or emotional neglect can carve deep scars into the hearts of their children that last for years or decades.

Before accepting the role of caregiver for an estranged parent, consider working with a counselor, therapist, or mental health professional to find some peace with or acceptance of the situation.

Unfortunately, it’s possible that the emotional needs of the parent or the adult children won’t get resolved, even with increased contact and the establishment of a caregiving relationship.

Both parties should do their best to understand and accept this possibility ahead of time. Otherwise, it could create resentment and lead to greater conflict over time.

Finally, it’s important to be realistic. Would becoming a full-time caregiver for an estranged parent be too taxing on the potential caregiver or their family? 

If this relationship is something that could affect everyone negatively, professional caregiving services or moving to a care community may be better options.


Closing thoughts

Caring for an older adult is always a difficult and complex task, but navigating care for an estranged parent requires even more emotional strength, determination, and forgiveness than the traditional family caregiving relationship. 

That’s why it’s so important to be mentally prepared and have a clear understanding of the situation before taking it on. 

Above all, these caregivers should make sure their mental and emotional needs are being met outside of the caregiving relationship with their parent.

With support and boundaries, caring for an estranged parent doesn’t have to create more difficulty and pain. It could be a positive and affirming experience for caregivers and their parent alike.


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Guest contributor: Rebecca Rushing, BSN, RN, is director of Client Care Services for FirstLight Home Care. Nurse Beckie is a certified dementia practitioner, an Ageless Grace brain health educator, and a Positive Approach® to Care Independent Trainer. Beckie has more than 30 years of nursing experience and a passion for the well-being of older adults.


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