Dear Family Advisor

My Dad Is in Assisted Living, and My Mom Feels So Guilty That She's Upset All the Time.

Last updated: Nov 29, 2011


My mother has cancer, and although she seems fairly healthy at the moment, we chose to put Dad in assisted living. He has Lewy body disease and is in the moderate stage. He's had difficulty adjusting and is very weepy with Mom when she visits. It's putting quite the guilt trip on her, and she's upset and wondering if she did the right thing.

This is a marriage of 48 years, and the separation has been very difficult on both of them, but I still believe it was necessary given the circumstances. Any suggestions on how Dad can cope with this?

Your parents both have a lot to adjust to, and it's going to take time for them to settle in -- but there may be a few suggestions I (and our great readers) can offer that might help ease the transition.

First, remind your mom that your dad isn't totally in control of his emotions anymore. Lewy body and other dementia-related diseases often rob us of the ability to express ourselves in the way we mean to. Or they may heighten an emotion and cause us to overexpress ourselves.

For now, I suggest that your mom not go alone when she visits. It will be too easy for your dad to overwhelm her right now, and given her cancer, she has to take care of herself physically and emotionally. Go with her, but first give her a pep talk. Remind her that this is part of love: being sure that he's in a safe environment and is getting good care. Be their go-between, and keep the conversation upbeat or distract your dad if need be. Consider getting him a comfort item as well: a blanket, a teddy bear, even a squishy ball -- something he can hold or fiddle with when his emotions ramp up.

If he starts to get really clingy, leave quietly. I don't mean for this to sound cold, but I want you to protect your mom as much as you can. It will be difficult to calm him down after he's started with full-blown emotions. Call in an aide to ask him or her to do something -- like fix the sheets -- and during the hullabaloo, leave and then try another day. Save this as a last resort, but don't subject your mom to feeling guilty when she's doing the very best she can. Make sure your dad is safe and well cared for, and then slip away and let him calm down on his own.

Next, plan short visits that focus on an activity. Eat lunch with him in the cafeteria or go for a walk in the courtyard. That way he won't have time to get totally worked up. Also, don't be surprised if your dad is "emoting" all of his feelings on his wife, including the regular stress of the day as well as the confusion of the disease. She may be getting more than her fair share simply because we tend to vent to people we trust to love us no matter how we act.

When things calm down, start helping your mom plan "date nights." She can dress up a bit, plan something special to take to eat, or take a photo album to share or music they both love. They're still married, and once Dad adjusts they might be able to start acting like a married couple again. Try it without calling it a date night, because there will be times when he can't respond in a positive way.

Then plan something to do after you visit your dad, so that your mom can get her mind off it. Go out to lunch, get an ice cream, or make that the day your mom gets her hair done. Do something that takes off the edge. In your conversation, focus on what went right, or change the subject if you need to.

Above all, remind your mom of their amazing marriage and reassure her that she made a good decision. All of us need to hear that. Hold her and give her a safe place to feel her own emotions. It's hard to be the strong one, and if one person is weepy then the other person automatically tries to compensate. Remember that she misses him too. It will help her just to verbalize that, and to have someone to listen and care.

Just be there for both of them. This is terribly hard, and they're losing so much -- their health and their marriage. That's very, very difficult.

There are no easy solutions, so simply love them and be there for them as best you can.