Dear Family Advisor

I took the brunt of my dad's nastiness my whole life. Now I am his caretaker and I resent it.

Last updated: Aug 11, 2008

My dad has been a handful all his life -- prone to making demeaning and very sarcastic remarks. I am his oldest child, and my mom and I took the brunt of this as I was growing up. Now he is almost 90 years old and has vascular and frontotemporal dementia. Since my mom died four years ago, my husband and I have been his primary caregivers. I work full-time, so my husband does the yeoman's work -- taking him to the doctor, shopping, and so on. Dad has been in a retirement home for the past two months, but there are still things to do for him. My sister lives two hours away and comes down about four times a year, just for three or four hours at a time. My dad has recently started taking some meds that have evened out his temperament a bit, but I still can't help being resentful of him for the way he treated me. I'm also resentful of my sister. What can I do to get over this?

As surprising as it may seem, you can actually do a lot if you can view this situation as an opportunity. Care giving for a parent has much to teach us about life and relationships. Even if we thought we left our family -- and family dynamics -- behind years ago, care giving can bring them crashing back, as if we never grew up. But it also gives us a chance to work through our feelings as adults.

So dealing with long-term resentment begins with remembering that, as diminished as your father may sometimes make you feel, you are a grown woman. He does not set the rules anymore; you decide how you will care for him. And now that he has moved to a retirement home that can help with many of his needs, you can rest easy knowing that you don't need to be there at his beck and call.

On a practical level, here are some changes you can make now:

• Tell your father when he hurts your feelings. With his dementia, this may not upset him, or, if it does, at least not for very long, so don't worry about it damaging your relationship. And it probably won't have any impact on his behavior. But this is mostly for you anyway, not for him. Just tell him he can't talk to you that way and then walk out of the room to show him that you won't tolerate it. This is a perfectly legitimate response on your part.

• Detach yourself more from him if you need to. You can continue to be a good daughter and excellent caregiver without getting all tangled up emotionally. Don't stop helping him -- run errands, take him to the doctor -- but stay at a "safe" emotional distance. If it helps, put an iPod earphone in one ear and play music to drown out some of his remarks! Don't feel guilty about this. It's enough to be there for him.

• Find other resources to meet some of your father's needs. You don't have to take him to every doctor's appointment and run every errand. His retirement home may offer some services, and the staff there can direct you to community resources that can help with others. Save your energy for the things you think are most important.

• Assign your sister some specific tasks. Financial or legal management, for example, can be done from a distance. And don't be available every time your father needs someone. Tell your sister you're going out of town for a holiday (and go!), and let her know that she'll need to come and care for Dad or make arrangements for his care. She may have fallen into the rut of seeing you as the primary caregiver, and perhaps she thinks you don't need or want her help. Or she may just be dumping it all on you. In either case, you will need to reeducate her. As the author Maya Angelou says, "We teach people how to treat us."

Doing these things will relieve some of the physical burden and resentment. It will also give you a chance to focus more on resolving your feelings.

Realize that the resentment you hold toward your dad hurts you the most. Keeping negative feelings inside and stewing over them causes you needless pain and can affect your health. And it's no fun. In my own life, I found that at some point I was just tired of being angry all the time and was ready for a change. I needed to get the feelings out.

So vent! Do it whatever way works best for you -- pretend your dad's in the room with you and scream at him at the top of your lungs when no one is at home. Write down all your memories of him -- good and bad. Or create a venting "ceremony": Write your resentments on slips of paper, read them out loud, then set them on fire and watch them burn up. Then sing a song that you like or find some other way of healing. You might want to do this more than once, and each time you do, you'll probably let go a little more.

Other tricks to letting go: Carry a stone in your pocket when you're with your dad, and touch it to remind you to choose joy over resentment. And keep visuals in your house as prompts. I have a photo of a strainer that helps me imagine my hurts and resentments washing right through me.

Also try to develop realistic expectations of your father and yourself. Realize that he has never been able to meet your emotional needs and is not going to now. And you probably won't ever come to love him on a deep level. So instead, focus on just accepting him as he is. He must have gone through life as a pretty unhappy man. Do you know where his meanness came from? As the old saying goes, "Hurt people hurt people." Uncovering your parents' past can be a bit like pulling the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz -- they suddenly don't seem so powerful. It may be hard to believe, but your feelings of resentment will probably give way to pity.

Finally, remember the big picture. You are much, much more than your father's daughter. Your relationship with him is only one aspect of your life. Like many caregivers, you may have neglected the other parts for a while. It's time to take them back. When is the last time you went to a comedy club? Out with girlfriends? On a weekend trip with your husband? Some of the best cures for resentment are laughter and taking care of yourself. Dote on yourself at least once a week -- get a pedicure, spend a couple of hours at a bookstore, get a coffee with a friend. Envision the "you" that you want to be in five years -- and start taking steps toward becoming that person.

Because of your dad's age and health issues, you know that he will soon pass away. You, on the other hand, have a long life ahead. You may not be able to change him, but you can change how you choose to deal with him and with your own emotions. Hopefully, that will ease your final days with him and leave you at peace when he's gone.