My addict father, age 90

He suddenly wants more contact -- is he trying to make amends, or drag me into the maelstrom?


Cary Tennis
November 20, 2004 1:19AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Like many other women my age, the burden of caring for my father has fallen to me. Unfortunately, Pop is addicted to painkillers, and is also a lifelong alcoholic and abuser. He is in assisted living at a really lovely facility close to my home, and for now, at least, can afford to live there. At 90, it seems to me that trying to cut corners is a little ridiculous.

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My sister lives out of state and cut herself off from him completely years ago. She is some emotional support, but mostly is happy to have me as a buffer between herself and Pop.

He has relatively free access to all the opiates he can manage, and after a 40-year addiction, that is a staggering amount. He can also have alcohol delivered, and has been in the hospital a couple of times in the last month with kidney failure.

I have spent a good amount of time and money in therapy, and feel I have gotten past the abuse, to a point where I can be objective and provide for what he needs without becoming entangled again. I truly no longer care if he lives or dies, and no longer care if he is drunk or stoned. Of course, having hired nurses to clean up the messes he leaves has been a huge part of my being able to get to this detached state. If I am involved with him, I insist on meeting in public areas, which he feels looks bad, and when I see him, shrunken and in a wheelchair, it does seem laughable. But all the rage is still very much there, and if I get close to his apartment, I have chest pains, and my blood pressure is elevated for days. I have power of attorney now, which I believe he asked me to do because he planned more involvement with me. I am considering guardianship, which would be against my lawyer's advice, and in taking more power from him, would probably create more rage and more confusion.

So here's the problem: Suddenly aware that he has a limited time here, he wants to mend fences. My feeling is that he really wants to hook me into the whole codependent maelstrom once more, but he is my father, and he is elderly and not well. My son and husband are both adamant that I don't involve myself with him again, but now it almost looks healthier than where I am. I'm kidding myself, aren't I? People rarely change, and surely not at 90.

Dutiful Daughter

Dear Dutiful Daughter,

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People do often change at the approach of death. The prospect of dark eternity has its own unique persuasive charm. But it's hard to know whether your father has changed or not. If he is a practicing addict, perhaps even at 90 he does not truly grasp the gravity of his situation. He may still be trying to orchestrate events to suit his desires. So what I suggest you do, in order to respond to your father's wishes but preserve your own hard-won boundaries, is clarify what specific actions we are talking about here.

What does mending fences actually entail doing? Some actions would be OK and others would not be. For instance, you've determined that meeting with him in public is acceptable. If mending fences can be accomplished while meeting with him in public, then perhaps you can agree to that part of "mending fences." If it means meeting in private, then perhaps not. If what he is asking for is that you just be nice to him in his old age and do what he wants, I don't think you can afford to do that. You've worked hard to get where you are, and the danger of backsliding is real.

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Ideally, mending fences would mean that your father wants to make amends. If he wants to make certain statements -- for instance, that he is sorry for what he did, that he takes responsibility for it, that he sees his imperfections and regrets them -- you can accept such amends without breaching any of the boundaries you have established. But he may be just trying to bargain with you -- I will trade you one statement of amends for one statement of forgiveness. If so, participating in such a bargaining session might put you back in the old maelstrom of codependence.

It may help you to remember, in making these choices, that if he has reached any insight or come to any reconciliation about his past, such insight is valuable to him for its own sake, whether you validate it or not. That is, spiritually he's on his own.

Speaking of being spiritually on one's own, I must say this is one of those situations where it's useful to have a God around, to help divide the earthly labor. You could say forgiveness is up to God, that it's God your father needs to mend fences with, that it's God who makes for every man a space for private dignity after great harm, who relieves you of the burden of forgiving what for you may remain unforgivable.

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