Q My sister and I take care of our aging mother, who might only have a few months to live. I am the only family in town, so I do most of the work of talking with doctors, hiring help and spending quality time with her. This is my choice. However, I also notice that I end up exhausted. My mother likes to be more independent than she is capable of—driving alone, cooking, doing chores and not resting enough. She doesn’t respond to my concerns and I get frustrated, so we end up in unresolvable arguments. I don’t know what to do anymore.
A You are naming some core issues about aging: death, difficult conversations and managing serious responsibilities. As people age, unless they have done a lot of inner work on their personalities and relationships, they become more rigid and entrenched in their ways. Very few people soften in old age. Fear of illness, dependency and death become paramount and often families don’t talk about them. Older people tend to act out their fear through stubbornness and denial of dependency. The person who reminds your mother of these inevitable realities is you. Thus, you get the wrath and are blamed for feelings and experiences she doesn’t want to encounter in herself and her changing life.
Having these difficult conversations is necessary. Ask your sister and other relatives to help and offer ideas and support. Elicit the support of an older person that your mother respects, such as an aunt or uncle.
Ask your mother questions that will draw out her concerns. Simply listening and empathizing will also engender safety and get you out of the power struggle. Let her know that you care about her well being and want to do what you can to support her at this time in her life. Then inform her of your responsibilities in the situation and why you need to make certain decisions and how you need her to cooperate with you. She might grieve her losses, which would help her let go and accept the right support.
She may even be angry at you for exposing these things to the rest of the family and taking her control away. You’ll have to simply accept this is as normal and allow her to have her feelings and be willing to not be liked for a few weeks.
You need as much support and help as you can get. This includes more relatives, friends, cleaning, driving and medical support. If you have the money it will be well spent. Knowing that you need the help and learning to ask for it is often a big step.
Why do you feel like you have to do it all by yourself? This is a lot to hold psychologically.
Therefore, getting help on the material level, allows you to be more present to the emotional and familial realities.
Take care of your own emotional needs. Some people avoid dealing with the depth of the changes as a parent ages, by being busy with the physical demands of caretaking. Fnd the strength to encounter and deal with your mother’s changed circumstances. If you do, you will feel more inwardly supported.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D. is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. (650)325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com.