Dear Family Advisor

My father is in failing health and financial ruin, living with a woman who is bipolar, and refuses my help. What can I do?

Last updated: Sep 15, 2008

My father is 69 years old and in failing health. To make matters worse, he's currently in financial ruin and living with an opinionated woman who is not qualified to take care of him. She's also bipolar and demeaning to my father. She complains that she pays for everything and does everything for him, and he's just a burden.

When I try to discuss this with my father, he says, "Don't let her bother you." He lives eight hours away from me, so I can't check in often. I've suggested that he move closer to me, but he just passes that idea off.

My father needs my help, but how do I get him to accept it and move away from this lady?

Unless your father is mentally incapable of making decisions for himself -- and that doesn't sound like the case -- he has every right to live his life as he chooses. Like anyone else, elderly parents who are single experience loneliness and long for companionship, especially after a spouse's death. And like us, they don't always make good decisions.

If it seems that your father jumped into a relationship without considering how this new person would blend into the family or whether she might be a good caregiver, don't forget that time and failing health may have hastened his decision.

Given your description of the situation, it would be difficult for you legally to step between him and his female friend. Proving she's incompetent to make decisions for herself or for your dad would take time, money, and energy -- energy that could be better spent differently.

Though it may be difficult, it would be best to focus on trying to build a workable, amenable relationship with her, for his sake. As much as you'd like him to move closer to you, he won't if he doesn't think you're accepting of this new relationship. So it's important that you try to see her good side.

Although you might feel that he's made a poor choice, he may be happier than you think. Companionship is such a deep need that people will tolerate quite a bit. I hope for your father's sake that there are moments of tenderness you're not witnessing. Perhaps underneath, she's a softer person than she lets on to you.

You might try a simple gesture: Mail a funny or light card just to her. Send her a small gift if her birthday is coming up. Once a week, try chatting with her for a few minutes before asking to speak to your dad when you call.

Look for something that you can communicate about -- perhaps it's planning an event for your dad's birthday or even brainstorming about his care. Let her know that you realize that being a caregiver can be an enormous burden. If you can gain her trust, you may be able to suggest some options for help with his care. Or try to talk to her and your father together about getting part-time in-home care to take the pressure off her.

Do this for your dad. If necessary, plaster a smile on your face when you start out. Be patient and consistent. You'll have much better access to your dad and better knowledge of his health and financial status if you don't pose a threat to her -- and you may even end up feeling better about her.

You mention that she's bipolar. Is this an official diagnosis? If so, she's dealing with an incredibly tough condition. She may not mean to be so difficult, and there are treatments that can help her.

Is she on medication for the condition? Does she forget or refuse to take it? Obviously these topics may be off-limits for the two of you to discuss, but perhaps she has family members who could shed some light on her condition or encourage her to get help. This would certainly make your father's life easier as well.

While you work on developing a relationship with her, continue to be a part of your dad's life as much as you possibly can. Talk to him on the phone every few days. See him as often as you can so that you can monitor the situation. Make it clear that you're going to be a regular part of their lives.

His relationship with this woman might not work out -- often, these things don't. So be prepared for a breakup. You might be happy about it, but your dad's heart could be broken. You'll need to be there for him and help him construct a new life plan.

In the meantime, although you'd like your dad to move away from her and closer to you, think about what it will mean if he doesn't. Play out that worst-case scenario in your head or on paper, and figure out what you think would be necessary -- such as in-home care -- for you to feel that he's safe and cared for.

In the end, if you truly feel that your dad is in danger or not receiving proper care (and not just that you'd prefer his living situation to be different), consider legal action carefully. It could further isolate you from him. If you choose this route, contact an elder-law attorney.

But don't be surprised if your father's friend begins to change when you make an effort. Ironically, sometimes when we stop pushing against life, it gives a little.