I have assessed hundreds (perhaps thousands) of older adults over the past 16 years. Sometimes it was for Home Care eligibility, and other times it was for a mental health assessment. On occasion, I will interview someone who talks about an adult child who he or she hasn’t talked to or heard from for years. It is often an emotional topic. The term we use for this is estrangement. Family estrangement is when there is a physical or emotional distancing between at least two family members when one of the parties is not happy with the arrangement.
When older people talk about the estrangement, it is often very painful for them. I often wonder why and when the separation occurred. I wonder who was at fault? Was anyone at fault? Or is this something that just happens naturally between two people? Sort of like what happens to friends or acquaintances sometimes. Is the adult child unhappy with the arrangement? Or is it just the parent?
There was one man in particular I remember who’s heart was obviously broken. He was about 85 years old. He lived in a nursing home. One of the things that was causing him such grief and sorrow was the fact that he had not heard from his son for years. He told me he wanted to contact him so he could feel at peace. I was not able to facilitate this for him. I wish I could have.
What causes estrangements between a parent and child? Perhaps the parent mistreated the child when they were younger, and now the adult child would rather not be subject to any more mistreatment. Perhaps the adult child cannot cope with the changes that aging brings to their older parent. Maybe mental health problems influence the child into not wanting to talk to his/her parent. Perhaps an abusive and controlling mate keeps the person away from their family. Then I wonder, what if the child is feeling the same way and is waiting for the call from his or her parent? (A waiting game called: “Who will call who first?”)
Whatever the reason for estrangement, I have seen a few cases now that cause a parent to be heartbroken in later life. These situations cause feelings of loss, confusion, worry and guilt. I know that as we grow older, many of us want to make peace and right some of our wrongs. Perhaps we want to die without regrets. I am a parent myself, and I can only imagine how difficult it would be to lose a child in that way.
I wonder if there is any hope, ever, to reunite an older adult with their estranged child. If so, how does one go about doing that?
Angela G. Gentile
Angela G. Gentile MSW, RSW. is a clinical social worker and author of the book, “Caring for a Husband with Dementia: The Ultimate Survival Guide”, “A Book About Burnout: One Social Worker’s Tale of Survival” and the “Dementia Caregiver Solutions” app for iPhone and iPad. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with her husband and two adult children. She is passionate about all things related to Aging Well. For more information, visit: www.AngelaGGentile.com