Dear Family Advisor

I'm not close to my dad's new wife, and that's keeping me from caring for him as much as I'd like to (he has Alzheimer's). How can I step in and help him more?

Last updated: Apr 24, 2008

Dad remarried after Mom passed away a few years ago, and his new wife doesn't feel connected to our family. She's nice, but we just haven't bonded and, quite frankly, I don't have the time or patience to invest in a relationship with her. So it's uncomfortable for me to step in and care for my dad, and I feel that I should. Dad hasn't said anything, but when he's lucid, I feel like he's wondering why I don't come over more often. His wife isn't in great health either, and I sense she doesn't quite know what to do about all this. Also, she doesn't have children, and I'm afraid I'll be saddled with her care one day. I consider myself a loving person, but this feels like too much too handle. Yet I know I'll feel guilty if I don't do more to help my father.

Don't allow your dad's new wife to keep you from seeing him. You want and deserve to be a part of his life, and you'll regret it if you don't speak up about it.

And from what you say, it seems she's not trying to stop you from seeing him. Your dad remarried pretty soon after your mother's death. Might you resent his new wife a bit because of that -- or because she's not your mother? It also sounds like she may feel disconnected from you because you aren't interested in forming a relationship with her. Could this make her resent you as well?

So, first you need to sort through some of these issues in your own mind. Like it or not, she's an important part of your father's life now, and part of yours. It will be easier for everyone if you can treat her that way.

Then sit down and have a talk with them -- both of them, because he may forget or misinterpret, and she needs to know you're not trying to go behind her back. Tell them you want to spend time with your father on a regular basis. Be specific -- for example, tell them you want to see him once a week or so. Say to your dad, "I'd like to take you out for the two of us to do something together."

You need his wife to be on your side, so reassure her that you're glad he has her in his life and you're not trying to get between them -- you just love your dad. Also, be wiling to spend some time with the two of them. It doesn't have to be much, but she needs to see you making an effort.

Your father, his wife, or both of them may feel awkward and hesitant. Be patient and consistent. Your father may not know or remember how to be your dad, especially with all the changes in his life over the last few years.

Your concerns about his wife's health and the possibility that your dad may predecease her are reasonable. Since it appears that she loves your dad and is good to him, it's important to try to make sure she's cared for. This doesn't mean you have to be the one to do it. In this case, taking care of her means letting her know it's her responsibility to plan now for her future care.

It's best to have this discussion after the three of you have spent some time together and you're seeing your dad on a regular basis. Once his wife feels more comfortable around you, ask her what her plans are if anything happens to your dad. Ask if she has long-term care insurance, or what she's considering if she needs full-time care. You can help her with this if you want, but make sure that it remains her responsibility. We all should make plans and not leave this to others, so feel confident that this is perfectly appropriate on your part. Of course, you want to be as sensitive as possible of her feelings. If she feels threatened and tells you it's none of your business, let her know she's right -- it isn't your business, but you care about what happens to her. If she chooses to act cold or distant, or she won't share any information with you, then she's choosing to go this alone.

Your father's wife is in a difficult situation, though, and I'd guess that she'll ultimately welcome your concerns and help with your father. My hope is that the three of you can forge a satisfying relationship and a common bond. This will be increasingly important as your father's disease progresses.