May 4, 2011

What Am I Going To Do About Mom?

Not long ago a reader asked for some feedback on the important issue of dealing with a difficult parent. This problem is one that many of us are facing now, or will have to deal with in the future. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area of human relationships. But, doing some basic research on the Internet has provided some approaches that may be helpful for that reader, and you, to consider in your quest for satisfying retirement lifestyle.

Don’t expect your family member to change. Whatever you do (or don’t do) accept that the difficult parent may not change. You can change some of the factors under your control that may make the relationship less stressful. But, expecting a difficult parent to become loving and accepting will only make your feeling toward that person worse when change does not occur.

Don't Give Advice Unless It's Asked For. Your parent is probably feeling a loss of control and freedom. If you begin to reverse the parent-child role by offering unsolicited advice on unimportant topics, you are risking problems. Importantly this concerns advice, not critical health and safety issues that must be faced.

Accept Differences of Opinions. After all, your parent is not you. Mom or Dad does not think exactly like you. Respect the opinions of others, don't disregard them. Don’t dismiss, out of hand, an opinion no matter how different from yours.

Listen to What Your Elderly Parent is Saying. Listen completely, really listen. Remember that an older person might take longer to form a response or finish a thought. A period of silence is not a bad thing that you need to fill immediately. Paying attention and listening carefully shows respect. Of course, listening works both ways so try to determine that your loved one is hearing and understanding what you are saying.

Attempt to determine a pattern. Does your parent’s mood worsen the longer he or she is awake? Could it be pain? it a growing feeling of frustration at the inability to perform usual daily tasks or to remember things? Angry outbursts, complaints, and sarcasm may be the result.

Respond to strong emotions with none. The best response is no response at all. Most people who like to argue do so because it tends to evoke a strong emotional reaction from others. Don't take the bait. If you respond to a challenge with a clam and neutral emotional tone, it is likely the combative parent will move on to another subject. your mother will probably drop the subject pretty quickly.

At all costs, stay calm. When you must deal with criticism and anger keep yourself under control. Yelling back never helps. Your parent’s emotions can be a projection of feelings of isolation and inability to do he or she used to do. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled into a battle that is about emotions and not reality.

Protect Yourself. You and your parent cannot afford for you to suffer from burnout. While you can't change your aging parents' condition, you can do things for yourself. Remember that you need a respite for yourself. Your parent may not be happy (so what else is new?), but hire someone for a few hours, or even a full day to recharge your batteries. Taking a break is something that you require. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t accept criticism from others. You know your limits.

There are many quality organizations and web sites with more information and suggestions. Here are a handful that I have visited:

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  1. Good points but I'd like to know what to do when your mother-in-law expects you to jump up and drive her to the bank, to grocery shop etc. Mine lives 30 mins away and can walk and lives 5 minutes from stores. There's a bus that picks them up and she lives with hundreds of people over 55, many still working. She does not have dementia and still claims to do real estate, and criticizes her sister for always being a pain and relying on others to do things for her. My husband did not have a happy childhood and all I can say, is "Please don't let me become like her." I think it's time for my husband and I to move to our house in Florida. Any advice Bob?

  2. Hi Sonia,

    Is it time to be gutsy? Good question. My first thought would be don't move to Florida to escape the problem...go somewhere interesting like, Belize!

    Seriously, one of the basic guidelines in a situation like this is to simply say "no" but don't give any excuses. Your "no" should be enough. If she asks why simply say, "I can't help you now." If she pressures you for a reason, simply restate, "Mom, I can't help you now (or today)."

    If she trots out the guilt trip, ignore it. If she berates you, tell her you have to go and hang up. In situations like these, the power the other person wields over you is strictly proportional to how much power you give them. If you don't play along, they eventually quit and find another solution.

    My advice would be very different if she were not in the situation you describe. But, she is trying to provoke an emotion and reaction in you. Don't play along.

    It is likely there is an underlying issue or two that is causing her to attempt to get you to jump when she snaps her fingers. Maybe your husband can shed some light on why she is acting this way: lack of power or respect during her marriage, loneliness or boredom....there are underlying problems at work here that are causing her behavior.

    But, as you attempt to determine what it is she really wants from you, don't buckle. Your "No" means "No."

    Any help?

  3. Thanks for this post and some gentle reminders. I am in the process of helping my folks downsize and move into assisted living. It has been hard getting them to let go of some of their "stuff". Old scrapbooks full of my valentines from first grade, HUH? and all sorts of ephemera. I tend to lose patience and say things like, "Why do you save all this crap?" Then I feel bad after wards. I love my parents but they can be really, really stubborn.

  4. Hi Roberta,

    The stuff battle is a big one. There is no easy answer. Even though my wife and I cut our living space in half when our girls were grown and gone, we had enough room to store some of my parents' stuff when they moved into a smaller home.

    After a year or two, what we had taken had been forgotten by them so we quietly got rid of most of it and donated the rest.

    I should point out before too many comments pile up, that "Dad" can be every bit as big a problem as "Mom." If this situation applies to you, substitute the appropriate name!

  5. Yes, it's time to be GUTSY. You're right. You know, I told my 86-year-old dad about my mother-in-law, and his opinion: That's (my husband's) mother, not mine. OK, just for fun, let me tell you what the first sentence was from my mother-in-law's mouth when I was first introduced to her in 1985. "Oh, I hear you're English," she said. "I hate the Royal family and I think they're a waste of money." My Gutsy response was, "So pleased to meet you." Now Bob, I think you just started something you didn't intend to: a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law discussion. The funny thing is my German friend has a wonderful mother-in-law who also lost her husband, but she's dynamic, she travels, she takes classes and I wish we could swap mother-in-laws.

  6. Gutsy,

    I guess you had a rather clear picture of what type of woman she was after that introductory sentence! That is amazingly rude. I give you major credit for not bopping her one 16 years ago!

    I bet there was serious unhappiness when your MIL had a husband. Unfortunately, all that pent up stuff flows to you.

    Do you see a blog post in this about relationships with in-laws? My MIL called me an obscene name more than once, so I have some stories, though I won't ever share that word!

  7. Bob,

    I think we're onto another blog post about in-laws, or perhaps something more like, "Are we going to become that way when we're old?" HOPE NOT. Although to my kids, I am that old already and say things that irritate my seventeen-year-old son, twenty-year-old and twenty-four-year-old. So who knows!

  8. My parents have both died, but everything you suggested is spot on relevant to dealing with my kids right now!

  9. Sonia & Galen,

    As we age we all have to try to remain aware of the impact our behavior can have on our kids. However, irritating kids is part of being a parents, I think!

  10. This is a difficult situation.
    I look at how my husband treated his mother- and the same treatment is with me. Will my children treat me the same?
    Show what you would hope for in the future.

  11. Morning Janette,

    Basically, follow the golden rule: treat others the way you'd like to be treated. But, with anything involving human relationships, the ideal isn't always achieved.

    You are absolutely correct: This is a difficult situation.

  12. Bob,
    It reminds me of parenting. Too late for me to learn any lessons. My problem was the emotional overlay. Do you ever get past feeling like a kid with your parents? I didn't.

  13. Ralph,

    What I have to be careful of now is treating my Dad like he's the kid and I'm the parent. He deserves my full respect but sometimes it is tough to not just ignore what he says and do what I think is best.


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