Dear Family Advisor

My mother insults my father's home aides and I don't know how to get her to stop.

Last updated: Jan 05, 2009

My father has been unable to speak or eat since an accident ten years ago. (He's fed through a tube and can only grunt.) My mother has hired round-the-clock care to assist her, but she's very bitter and treats the aides horribly. It's embarrassing how she bellows out commands, talks down to them, and even serves them lesser food -- like a bologna sandwich while she eats steak! I'm afraid they'll eventually take out their frustration on my dad. How do I get her to stop? And how should a professional caregiver in your home be treated?

As much as you see your mother's behavior as difficult, it probably stems from a place of hurt and disappointment. She never expected her life to take this turn.

Like most of us, she probably expected retirement would mean an easier lifestyle, travel, and enjoying family and friends. So this isn't what she signed up for -- and she's resentful. If someone is unable express these hard feelings, it can add to their irritability. Does she ever go to a support group? Talking about her feelings to a nonfamily member can really help.

Another issue possibly feeding her behavior: It's hard to trust that someone else can meet your loved one’s needs. I had care professionals in my home during the time my mother lived with my family. Some were jewels. They melded into our family dynamics and laughed and cried with us. They could get my mother to do things (bathe, eat, take meds) when no one else could. I also had some caregivers whose demeanor made it obvious that caregiving wasn’t their chosen profession. They made more work for me in an already stressful time. It could be that your mother perceives a bad fit.

Believe me, though, I understand how uncomfortable it is for you to see your mom treat people with less respect than they deserve. My own mother could be rude and demanding, and I had to learn to love her in spite of the hurtful things she’d say and do. This is not to excuse our elders, but many of them grew up in a time when their employees, especially people of a different race, were sometimes treated in a derogatory manner, and they may still carry these thankfully outdated modes of thinking. Whether your mom was taught by her parents or her social group to behave rudely, or it’s just a part of her personality, doesn’t make it right, however.

I used to work with at-risk teens, and one girl often told me, “That’s just the way I am!” Finally one day I snapped and said, “Well, just the way you are stinks!” She was stunned, but I noticed a change in the way she acted after that. I’m telling you this story because you may have to call your mother on her behavior.

There’s a time and place to stick up for someone who isn’t being treated properly. First, speak to your mother privately. Tell her that how she talks to the hired caregivers is belittling and hurtful. Be specific. Give her clear examples of times when she was overly demanding or devalued someone. Remind her that how she talks to anyone in her house is exactly what she’ll get back. Kindness, smiles, and thank-yous are usually returned in kind. And do explain that her husband might not receive good care from someone who has been offended. This may motivate her more than her conscience.

Point out to your mother, too, that the more rapport she can build with the aides, the more likely she can take some time off, whether it's for lunch with a friend or even a week’s vacation -- or two -- a year. Emphasize how she deserves this. You might see a real difference in her mood if she were to enjoy a good long rest.

After that, if there are instances you feel you can't let slide, intervene. Sometimes I'd even stop my mother in mid-word to say to the aide, “Excuse me, but that was inappropriate and hurtful, and in no way do you deserve to be treated like that.” Sometimes I went on to explain that my mother had Alzheimer’s, but I got to where I didn’t want to hide behind any excuse. Professional caregivers have usually dealt with such clients before and are incredibly patient and forgiving.

Of course aides should be treated with respect, but they can only do their jobs well if they clearly know what’s expected of them. Ask your mother if you can help her design a routine so she won’t have to micromanage. Each person should know what to do and when to do it, allowing your mother to begin to move toward trusting that your dad's needs will be met in a timely, professional manner. Try to be there for one whole day to work this out.

As far as meals go, it’s okay to eat different foods but they don't need to be eaten together, even if your mother is providing meals. It's a matter of privacy, not hierarchy. A professional caregiver is performing a job, and they deserve breaks that can be spent any way they like.

It sounds like you really care about what your mom and dad are going through. I hope you’ll be open to spending some time helping them through this rough patch, even if being around your mom the way she is now isn't much fun. She needs someone like you to teach her how to keep a professional and yet courteous distance -- and that the Golden Rule still rules.