Dear Family Advisor

My disabled mom lives alone, and I'm afraid she's going to burn down the house while cooking.

Last updated:

January 05, 2011

My mom is in a wheelchair due to severe rheumatoid arthritis. She lives alone and insists on cooking. I'm afraid she'll burn the house down.

I do her grocery shopping for her but otherwise help her live as independently as possible. She wants to stay in her own home and I respect that. But I've asked her to concede on one point: Stop using the stove burners. I'm afraid she's going to spill boiling liquid on herself or catch her sleeve on fire.

I've taken every precaution I can think of -- I bought her a toaster oven and a simple microwave (placed lower for her to reach), and I've arranged for meal deliveries four days per week.

Why is she fighting me so hard when it comes to using the burners? She knows it makes me worry. Should I put my foot down and make her move in with me, or just let her live with the consequences?

Instead of head-butting with your mom, simply make the decisions you need to make. I know I regret not taking the reins when it involves safety.

I can suggest two options: First, if you're really concerned, dismantle the stove top (take it out completely, or perhaps cut the wires). That sounds like a strong tactic, but I think that if she hurt herself, you'd regret not having done all you could to prevent a serious accident. Having your mom get mad at you is better than having her admitted to the burn unit of a hospital.

Second, have you explored the possibility of someone moving in with her? She would get to stay put but would also get a little more monitoring, and perhaps some cooking assistance. Consider renting out a room or exchanging it for care and company. Check at your local church or senior center; even someone just a few years younger than your mom might be a good fit and good company. After all, your mom won't be able to live alone forever.

In the meantime, though, she may be lonely. Independent elders often face days that seem to stretch into infinity. They do what they've always done: cook, shop, or clean. My mom used to "play office" because she'd always done administrative work. Even after Alzheimer's had affected her abilities, her default was to balance her checkbook and go through paperwork for hours at a time. Your mom may be cooking because she doesn't know how to fill up that time any other way, and other methods of cooking (such as using a microwave or toaster oven) feel awkward to her. Take the time to make sure your mom knows how to operate these other appliances.

It may be that your mom has an additional physical condition or limitation, such as Parkinson's. And how's her eyesight? Many elders have cataracts, glaucoma, and other eye issues. She may feel like she's totally capable of cooking without taking into account that she isn't seeing clearly and is having accidents even though she thought she was doing everything right. Her doctor may have some ideas for physical or occupational therapy that would help her find new ways to cook and do other household and personal chores within her range.

Or your mom could be developing some neurological or cognizance issues. She could be forgetting what you two have agreed to. Alternatively, she may subconsciously want attention, and she knows that it keeps you on a short leash if you constantly have to check on her.

Don't be surprised if you solve the cooking issue only to find yourselves at odds over something else. Why? We tend to push against each other at the best of times, and right now your mom needs something to do -- so she pushes your buttons. She's also testing to see if you really do love her. So what do you do?

Step back. Disengage for five minutes. Laugh and hug each other. Drop the issue for a time, until you can come up with a viable solution. Bickering is a common mother-daughter interaction, so figure out some way for you to trigger that "off" switch and bow out of the fight. Your mom's just trying to make her life feel like it's still her life, and that's understandable. Give her as much say-so about her situation as you can, make tough decisions when you need to, and laugh at the rest. My mom and I had some doozies when it comes to tiffs, and I'm here to tell you that they had nothing to do with how much we loved each other.

I hope you're also planning for the time when your mom may no longer be capable of living independently. It may come sooner than you'd like, so begin to make serious plans -- more than one of them. You may go through several living arrangements before you find the right one.