Dear Family Advisor

My mom is so needy -- I feel like a bad daughter because I can't be there 24/7.

Last updated: Jan 21, 2010


My mother, who at 56 has coronary heart disease and a stent, lives alone almost 1,000 miles from me. My parents divorced five years ago after decades of marriage, and I'm the only child.

I don't want to move there, though I worry about her constantly. Her health is stable and she's working, but she tries to make me feel guilty for not living close to her. I try to call her every day, and she complains it's not enough. When I can't talk long because I'm studying, she implies I don't want to talk to her. She feels I'm putting my boyfriend of eight years before her, which is far from the truth.

She also seems to have different symptoms daily. She goes to doctors all the time, and they can't find anything wrong with her. I have such guilt -- I feel like a bad daughter. I worry something bad will happen to her and even have nightmares. And when I go home, all she does is ignore or criticize me! How do I help my mother become happier? How do I cope with being so far away?

You're clearly not a bad daughter or caregiver, so stop those thoughts right away. I use the rubber-band method -- I put one on my wrist, and when I see it, I'm reminded not to give in to negative and defeating thoughts. From what I gather it really is OK to live away from your mom for now.

Getting divorced and having heart disease aren't easy, and your mom's complaints and fixation on her health may stem from these events. In fact, it's common for people to become depressed or anxious after major surgery. Her life has changed in pretty significant ways, and she has every right to feel scared and lost. She wants and needs attention-- and sadly, she's seeking it in unhealthy ways. In time, and with your encouragement, that could turn around.

As difficult as it might be, I'm glad you're not relinquishing your life to rush to her side. Your choice not to hurry home and "fix it" is a vote of confidence that she's capable of setting her life on a new course, which it sounds like she is. Give her time to adjust, but also help her develop a plan and begin to make new connections.

After a divorce, people lose part of their established life, including some friends and activities. She may need to seek out some new gal pals. Plenty of single, widowed, and divorced men and women would enjoy her company. She needs you, too -- you're her family and lifeline. She's also that for you.

Calling her every day may help -- even if you only have five minutes and literally have to hang up on her (after several warnings, and with love). Talking often strengthens your relationship, helps you keep track of her health, and enhances her sense of being cared about. My own mom insisted I call every day, and I'm so glad I did. I have the same tradition with my adult children. Even a "Busy day"¦I'm well"¦I love you" means so much.

But inching your mom out of her negativity will take time. Does she have a computer? If not, encourage her to get one -- or a mobile device that will allow you to e-mail her. E-mailing to touch base can be less frustrating than phone calls.

Be her sounding board, but with limits. Tell her she's got ten minutes to vent, but then you get a few minutes to vent, too (about your boss, your hair, the weather, so there's a give and take). If the negativity becomes too much, remind her it's not good for her or you and insist that she change the subject or you'll have to hang up -- and then keep your word. She may get mad, but she'll get the point.

You might even sometimes insist that each of you end the conversations with three things you're grateful for. We are soluble creatures, meaning that we tend to absorb whatever thoughts are around us. That's why it's so important that we surround ourselves with active people who have a good outlook on life. I hope you'll come to view your daily chats as a privilege. Ask any daughter who's lost her mom.

Nudge your mom to take a continuing education class or become active in her community or house of worship. It's good that she's working, but we can hide in our work and then come home and crash in front of the television at night. Help her find out what other activities are available nearby. They'll take her mind off her health and help her meet others.

Caregiving may enter our lives at what we think is an inopportune time, and we don't always get to choose where life will take us -- but we do get to choose how we respond.