Dear Family Advisor

My mom is so critical that I'm already regretting moving in to be her caregiver.

Last updated:

March 23, 2010

My mom has severe rheumatoid arthritis and has trouble getting around and keeping her balance. I recently moved in to help her after I got laid off. Before, she was doing OK by having someone come in several times a week to do some chores, but since I've moved in, she's gone downhill, although there's no real medical change. She has me waiting on her hand and foot -- meals, errands, all the household responsibilities -- and she holds the fact that I'm living with her over my head. On top of that, apparently I can't even wash a dish or fold a towel correctly. She gets angry if I leave or call a friend.

I thought it would be practical to live together, but now I'm wondering if it's good for either of us. How do I move out -- or should I?

Whether you move out or not, you do need to pull back on your caregiving role.

Your mom is experiencing what I call the passenger syndrome. When I'm driving alone, I know right where I am. I pay attention. I double-check that I have my keys in my hand before I lock the car door. When I'm the passenger, I let the other person (usually my spouse) think for me. While it's relaxing to be the passenger at times, it's also good for us to stay in the driver's seat as long as possible.

Your mom is expecting you to handle things -- only she's that annoying backseat driver who wants to dictate every turn of the wheel. This isn't good for your relationship, for your career path, or for your mom's health.

Let's look at your life first: You were recently laid off. Would you like to work again? Are you looking? Will you go back into the same field or try something new? Take a class at a community college to help yourself re-train? Use this time at your mom's to make a game plan.

Maybe you can't afford to move out until you get a job, so first things first. Devoting serious time to looking for a job will also give your mom a hint that having you as her full-time caregiver is temporary. It clues her in that you must think about your own life, too.

Now, let's look at your mom's care. You mentioned that she used to have people coming in to give her a hand. Can you go back to that system? Explain that with the job search, you simply can't do it all.

One of the best ways I know to decide which aspects of caregiving are truly needed and which aren't is to draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. In the first column, list the chores and commitments you feel good about taking on -- the ones that suit your personality and time constraints, such as taking her to the doctor or cooking some meals.

In the second column, list the things that aren't essential, that you're not good at, or that you could find someone else to do. Tape that list in a prominent place so you won't lose focus.

Brainstorm online and with friends about how to "solve" the issues in that second column. You'll quickly start to see solutions -- or you'll realize it's not the end of the world if some things don't get done. Encourage your mom to find some of her own solutions, too.

Start with the first thing you'd like to delegate. Many local eldercare resources might be affordable or even free. Don't feel guilty about getting help; adopt the mindset that your mom, like many older adults, needs more help than one person can provide.

And if you have to have a standoff about her attitude, then have one. If she's going to be stubborn or critical, let her feel the consequences of her own actions. State clearly, "I've heard what you have to say, and now we need to change the conversation -- or I will leave the room or listen to music." If you feel yourself getting sucked into an argument, stop mid-sentence and pop in your ear buds, or walk out of the room when the trash talk starts. If she gets mad when you go out, then let her get mad every Tuesday at noon while you head to a class.

After you decide your next steps in carving your own life, including a new job if that's what you want, you can decide whether it's wise for you to continue to stay with your mom or if you need to relocate. Living nearby might be a much better fit, and she may fare better when she's "driving her own car."

It doesn't make you a bad child to choose not to live with your parent, though, especially if it's an unhealthy situation. You can still love your mom, care for her in many ways or find her the care she needs, and have time, joy, and energy enough to invest in your own life. It's one of the hardest parts of caregiving: having to decide how much to give of yourself.