Dear Family Advisor

I feel guilty about it, but I can barely stand the sight of my mother, who wants to live with me. What do I owe her?

Last updated: Sep 22, 2008

My mother is only 61 years old, but she may as well be 90. She and my father divorced five years ago, and since then she has simply given up on life. She rarely even leaves the house, except to buy beer. Her alcohol abuse has brought on some early signs of dementia, and she is very clearly depressed and has been for many years.

She's been through a slew of doctors and treatment programs, and one case manager feels that Mom should be in assisted living. My brothers and I agree. She's having a hard time taking care of herself.

The problem is that she doesn't want to be in assisted living -- she wants to live with us. We all live far away from her. We've broken our necks to get her all the help we possibly can, but, in the end, she always turns up her nose.

She ignores the doctors' warnings and stops taking her medications. She constantly reminds us, "This is why you have children, to have someone to take care of you when you're old." But none of us wants her to move in with us.

The guilt is exhausting. She wasn't a bad mom, but she's just a monster to be around now. Part of me thinks, "I should be taking care of her. She's my mother, and she's lonely and sick and needs help." But frankly, I can barely stand the sight of her these days.

She attempted suicide right in the middle of my first pregnancy. Now I'm pregnant with my second child, and I feel like I need all of my energy for my family. My mother drains the life out of me -- I spend just a couple of days with her and she has me waiting on her hand and foot.

To live my whole life like that would be the end of me. I guess I'm just trying to figure out where to draw the line. How do I even determine what kind of help I owe this woman?

Your mom is wrong. We don't -- or shouldn't -- have children in order for them to care for us in our old age. But that isn't really the issue here, is it?

Clearly, you and your brothers are trying to care for her. She just doesn't like the way you're doing it because she wants to move in with one of you. She's trying to guilt-trip you into making that happen, and it's good that you're not giving in to it.

I don't mean to be insensitive to her situation. Certainly, she is hurting, scared, in denial, and unhappy -- and she has been for quite a while. Her suicide attempt is a very real indication that she's suffering from clinical depression. But giving in to her demands isn't the best way to help her. Moving in with you won't solve her problems -- or be healthy for you or your family.

So first and foremost, you need to be clear with her that she can't move in with you. Reassure her that you love her and that this is what love looks like -- adult children care for parents in many ways that don't necessarily involve the parent living with them. Don't feel guilty about drawing the line there.

Unfortunately, alcoholism consumes the lives of many of our elders and yet is seldom talked about. I won't pretend that your chances of getting her to change at this point are good. The sad fact is that the older you get, the harder it is to kick an addiction, and she needs to have the will to do it.

Still, you can't coddle an alcoholic. You and your brothers need to tell her that you think her alcoholism is making her unable to take care of herself and that she needs to get some professional help. You will support her if she does this, but she needs to initiate it and understand that none of you can care for her if she continues drinking.

It's important that you and your siblings have a united front on this, so I'd suggest that you have a long talk and set up a plan that you can all agree on. Since she'll probably feel betrayed, isolated, and angry, it's crucial that you're all consistent and unwavering to keep her from wheedling her way between you and pitting you against one another -- which she'll no doubt try to do.

I'd suggest that you and your brothers write down some rules to present to her. They could include that:

• She seek medical help from her doctor. There are now drugs to help curb the desire to drink, and antidepressants may also help.

• She see a therapist. Obviously there is an emotional and psychological component to her drinking. She probably hasn't dealt with the grief of her divorce, the lack of direction in her own life, the fear of aging, and other personal issues.

• She go to Alcoholics Anonymous, if she hasn't done so before -- or even if she has.

You may well have tried out these ideas already. But it might be different this time if she sees that you're all unrelenting and united on this, and you aren't going to let her manipulate you. Of course, until she complies with your rules, you may have to watch her suffer and use every trick she knows to avoid dealing with them.

To stay the course, you're going to have to remind yourself that she does have a choice. She can go into rehab or assisted living. She can get help. It's not impossible, but it takes a commitment as well as a support system.

If she tries to tell you that you don't love her, tell her that you're going to hang up the phone and you'll talk to her when she can do so without blaming or hurting you with remarks like that. Then do it.

And just as your mother is the only one responsible for her own choices, only you are responsible for yours in this situation.

So now let's talk about you.

It must have been incredibly heartbreaking for you when your mother attempted suicide during your pregnancy. You must have felt both hurt and angry, and you have every right to feel disappointed and frustrated with her behavior toward you now.

Putting your honest feelings down in your letter to me was a positive way to deal with them, and I encourage you to continue by talking to a good friend or clergy member -- whomever you feel safe with. You need to get all those emotions out. You don't want your anger and resentment to make you sick or get passed on to your children.

You have many people to care for -- your family, yourself, and the life inside of you. As much as you care for your mom too, you can't get sucked into the lies, broken promises, manipulation, and guilt that accompany addiction. If she asks for and is willing to accept help, get her help that doesn't require your constant emotional involvement. You need to let go a bit -- not of her, but of the idea that you're responsible for her life.

Eventually you'll learn to start letting go of your animosity. It will be replaced with a kind of sad tenderness. My birth father was an alcoholic, so I understand this on a personal level. I had to learn to accept him as he was and not try to solve his problems. When you can do this, you'll be able to hold her in your heart and see her in your mind as a whole person -- the mom you loved as a child.