Scapegoating and Aging

Researchers are aware of the detrimental effects of a practice called scapegoating. Many of us, during our life, have often played several roles that periodically we cast upon others. The aged parent, like it or not, often “inherits” one of these roles and becomes an unwitting scapegoat.

The researcher Archer suggests, “The focus of negative energy, arising out of scapegoating flows from a younger generation in the form of unfulfilled dreams, whereas the elder is the receiver or carrier of these multiple disappointments and worn traditions.” He further states, “The elderly individual tends to personify all of the facets of life that the young are conditioned to avoid i.e. death, illness, depression and uselessness.” It then becomes relatively easy for a young person to transfer their negativity and project it onto the aged parent in the form of an unwanted feeling, although the parent may in fact have already internalized the social rejection that is felt.

The dynamics of scapegoating have, as yet, not been fully examined in the literature.

Unfortunately, it is still recognized when a family crisis occurs and the elderly member is likely to be “removed” from the family group and is seen as the source of the problem. Excluding a member from a family system holds untold consequences and can create a major crisis, particularly if it is a death or an undesired separation. This is the time when scapegoating can occur. Here, then, is but one of many examples.

A middle-aged woman, dying from cancer, is trying to make peace with herself and family. Her aged mother has been living with the family for several years. She hovers over her daughter as any mother would for a dying child. The adult children of that dying woman appear offended and feel helpless. The husband feels crowded out by his inability to achieve a reasonable solution to his wife’s pending demise. Soon there is a spoken or unspoken desire by the children, “Why isn’t it grandma? She lived her life!” Emotions are now high. Grandma becomes the object of their derision and resentment because she is surviving. “It seems so unfair!” was heard throughout the house.

The family, including the grandmother, needs to sit down and talk about the feelings of how family members feel in relation to their dying mother and yes, to each other. Helping each other through trying times can be very difficult. External support from the nurse who was employed to care for the mother’s needs and the social worker on the case, can and will help each accept their pain without blame or scapegoating from family members.

According to the researchers Connidis and Davis, “Illness and deterioration of the elder; the adult child may at times feel ‘parental’ but the inner child always remains in search of the protective and guiding parent.” These dynamics often make the caregiving role tedious and complex for the young caregiver.

If an aged parent is beginning to need help, the following suggestions can be useful. It may aid in reducing the emotional crisis that tends to build up described as scapegoating and enters the family life and cannot be stopped.

  1. Encourage the elderly parent to remain independent as long as possible, especially during a family crisis.
  2. Assist the parent whenever possible, by involving them in all pertinent decisions that may affect them and the care their loved one is receiving.
  3. Provide help for those things that may be especially stressful or depleting. Otherwise, allow the elderly parent to participate when there is a family decision to be made, particularly when it concerns a loved one’s care.
  4. Seek resources that provide options between independent living and an admission to a facility such as employing a home health aide, participating in religious and community activities, or joining a senior citizen center.
  5. If the elderly parent insists never to be placed in a facility, then family should promise that they will do everything possible to prevent it. However, before any final decision is made, family should discuss this and other available options.

Throughout this article, I have sought to convey a primary and secondary relationship: 1) that exists between the old and their relationship with society; 2) the old and their participation with family; 3) the old with themselves, i.e. how they view others who care for them and how they feel about their presence in the family constellation.

Final Comments: My recollection of the many years spent caring for the fragile aged resident allowed me to develop a close and emotional tie with those who had been hospitalized or in a facility, and the vulnerable times when they were pre-occupied with a serious illness.

As a society, we should feel privileged with our ongoing relationship with an ever-expanding aging population.

My quotable quote says it all! “Dignity is the quality or state of being worthy, honored or esteemed.” Anon.

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