Dear Family Advisor

My dad is the one who is sick, but it's my mom who's the problem!

Last updated:

March 16, 2011

My mother has always told my dad what to do. The way she got her way was to yell and get angry, so that everyone in the family was afraid of her. After 58 years of marriage, my dad has never told my mother "no."

My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's several years ago (they're both 83 now). His memory is increasingly bad, and last week we had to take his car away. We had a family meeting about it and also arranged for him to start going to an adult daycare, to give him something to do and give my mom some time alone.

The problem is that my mother is fighting all three of us kids. She doesn't want Dad to go to daycare. She refuses to go to a support group, refuses my help, refuses to read anything about Alzheimer's disease, and thinks he's saying things to hurt her on purpose when he can't remember anything. I asked her last week what I could do to make her happy and she said, "Nothing." My sister suggested they could go to an assisted-living community, and she said, "I would like that if your father didn't go with me."

She has so much anger inside of her. She's angry about things that happened 50 years ago. She's yelling at my dad, he's yelling back at her, and it's not healthy for either one of them.

I really feel she just wants to be rid of him. My dad is well enough to be at home if my mother would get some help, but the sad thing is she doesn't want help.

First, I hope that you and your siblings will work on both a short-range and long-range plan. It will most likely be up to the three of you to decide on your parents' care, and these choices are much better made early, when emotions aren't over the top and you can be strong and clearheaded. Really do your research. There are lots of alternatives: small-group homes, home healthcare aides, respite care. The more you know about the resources in your area, the more you can manage your dad's day-to-day care.

The truth is, your dad's condition will only get worse in time. The three of you need to look carefully at your parent's finances (don't just take their word) and formulate a plan, knowing that your mom may eventually need care as well.

On that same note, pace yourself. You can't be sure how long your parents will live, and since one is likely to outlive the other, your care concerns and commitment will continue.

Now let's talk about your mom. You aren't going to change her. The anger, hurt, and fear of a lifetime are here to stay. I experienced this firsthand with my mom. I called it the "orange juice concentrate" theory. We're born all potent and concentrated -- pure emotions, no conscience. As we grow up, we fill up -- add water to our concentrate. But as we age, we come full circle but with added hurts, resentments, and fears. I witnessed my mother reverting back to these baser emotions, and I could do little to cheer her up, offer her hope, or reason with her. The best I could do was to observe it and try to make better choices for myself.

I understand your desperation to try to help both your parents. How to do that with someone who's angry and difficult? The key lies within you -- and in the past. Think back. How did you or anyone ever get your mom to do something or agree to something she didn't at first want? Even for someone who's called the shots most of the time, you can uncover how your mom thinks, what motivates her, and how to get through to her. You have to be keenly observant and be a detective into your own past.

The other key component is that you'll have to eventually dig deep and stand up to her over this issue. She's your mother for a reason, and you're in this circumstance for a reason -- yes, to help your dad and your mom, but also to learn something about yourself.

This isn't a concrete, step-by-step plan. But for me, I found that when I realized that there was more to glean from all this than frustration, I could actually learn about myself, about life, about what I chose to do differently. I felt relieved, as if a bigger plan were in play.

And finally, know that you'll find some solutions that will last for a while, but things may change again. Be ready, so it doesn't feel like you've been hit from behind with a two-by-four. Try to see each decision as only part of the solution.

If you can, get to a place of "loving what is." Your parents aren't going to change, and you can't "fix" all this. But you're the caring, responsible person you are in part because of them. Seek out moments of joy, humor, and insight. Choose to love well, but also choose not to let the exhaustion and heartbreak that can come with caring for someone you love destroy you. It's not easy, but being aware now will help in the future.

I know how complicated and frustrating it all can be. The only way we can keep our heads and hearts is to rise above, do what's best for everyone, and heap on gobs of mercy -- on ourselves and all those we love.