Dear Family Advisor

Dad has given up on Mom since her stroke.

Last updated: Jul 27, 2010

Help! Mom had several strokes last year and is living in a home now. She can no longer walk or communicate well -- but you can see that she still knows what's going on around her. Meanwhile Dad has gone into a "TV coma." He sits in his recliner all day, drinks beer, and flips the channels. I'm so disgusted with him!

I go to check on Mom every day, but he won't. I take her flowers, talk to her, take her out in the garden, and yes -- watch TV with her! She still smiles (sort of) when they bring pets or children to the care home or play music. She holds my hand and likes it when I brush her hair. Why can't Dad see that Mom needs his company and needs him to check on her safety? He says it would be better if she'd just be able to "go on," that she wouldn't want to "live like this."

I'm shocked -- and hurt. I never thought I'd say this, but I don't respect him anymore. Mom may not be the same as she was, but I still see my mom in there. I would never just turn my back on her -- and I can't believe he can.

You have two parents who need you right now, each in their own way. And as much as it seems like your dad doesn't care anymore, I'm guessing he does. Every marriage is different, and there may be more going on "behind the scenes" than you realize.

Your dad has a lot to process. If he loved his wife all those years, I doubt that he's suddenly stopped. It hurts him so much to see what she's going through that he's just shut down. In many ways, he's already grieving the loss of your mom -- the woman he used to know -- and he has to go through this process in order to get to the other side. He may even be depressed, which can make coping more difficult.

Give him time. As much as you can, love him -- and your mom -- and try be there for both of them. I also suggest reading up on depression, grief, and how to help someone who's depressed.

Can you get him to talk to a trusted nonfamily member such as an old friend, a clergy member, or a therapist? Encourage him to spend time with that person so he can begin to express what he's going through without feeling that he's somehow hurting or betraying those he loves. It may help if you make the arrangements for him, with his consent -- coordinate a lunch date or set up an appointment with a counselor, then drive him there and pick him up if need be.

Have you had a heart-to-heart talk with him yourself? Once you get to a place where you can love your dad right where he is, then sit quietly and share some of the ways you've connected with your mom. Ask him to try, just try. Remind him that as painful as it is, you know she still needs him.

Tell him that you can only imagine how hard this is for him and that you're going to love him no matter what. Then sit and be quiet. Stop by often. Take him dinner, or ask him to a movie. You're not betraying your mom by spending time with your dad. In fact, I think she'd want you to.

Continue to be there for your mom. You're her lifeline right now. There's something about being with a person who isn't capable of communicating in the usual ways that allows for a whole different level of sharing, insight, and understanding to open up. While I know at times you're stressed, begin to see this as a unique time in your life -- and know that you're going to receive far more from this experience than you're giving.

Expect this stage of your life to change you in many ways. You're becoming more thoughtful, having to learn patience, and even having to question marriage and all it brings. You're seeing faith, commitment, forgiveness, and sensitivity in multifaceted dimensions. Sometimes life cracks open and we see ourselves and those we love in surprising ways -- some good, some not so good. But we learn from them all.