Dear Family Advisor

My mom is taking advantage of my grandparents

Last updated: Jan 07, 2010

I'm 20 years old and am trying to help take care of my grandparents. My mother lives with them, and I'm afraid she's not taking good care of them. She's not working -- she only gets disability checks and Grandpa's Social Security. There's hardly any food in the home other than what my aunt drops off, and money constantly goes missing. My aunt and my mom aren't on speaking terms -- I'm the only neutral one in the family, so it's my job to intervene.

I've called Social Services before, but every time they go to talk to my grandparents, they say everything is fine. I know my mother is taking advantage of my grandparents, but I can't seem to find any way to help.

First, I applaud you for looking out for your grandparents. But accept right now that you didn't cause this situation and you can't fix it -- not all of it, anyway.

You're not alone in being a young caregiver. Millions of other 20- and 30-year-olds care for parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family and friends, too. But while you're looking out for your family, it's important you nurture yourself. Place your grandparents' safety and care high on your priority list -- but don't lose track of your own needs in the midst of family drama.

It sounds like your aunt is your best ally. Sit down with her and ask her to help you come up with a plan for how, together, you can better care for your grandparents. Write down your thoughts: What are your most pressing worries? What do you need help with? Start with a list of safety concerns, medical and care needs, and how to solve the food issue. (See whether Meals on Wheels, a free meal service for older adults, is available in your area.) Depending on where you live, consider whether the house is warm enough for older adults, too.

There's a wealth of online info that will educate you about caregiving issues specific to your situation. You can learn about [elderly safety] ( and how to handle family conflicts, for example.

Maybe you and your aunt could attend a caregivers' workshop in your area. Many are sponsored by places of worship, elder services, or organizations such as the Alzheimer's Association. You'll meet other caregivers, learn about local resources, and even get practical advice on how to cope with your mom. Reach out to get community resources involved; home healthcare, adult day programs, van or shuttle services, and community volunteers can give you assistance (often free) and also let you know in tangible ways that you're not alone.

While you have certain issues with your mom, she has challenges of her own. Yes, she may be using your grandparents in ways, but are there things she's doing right by them, too? Praise for the things she's doing right may spur her to do those positive things more.

To help your grandparents, you may have to emotionally distance yourself from your mother (even as you still love her). If it turns out she should be out of your grandparents' house, for financial or safety reasons, it isn't going to be easy and you're going to need guidance. Tapping into your area's elder resources can help you walk through the necessary steps. But since your grandparents are consenting adults, unless you get them declared legally incompetent, you're going to have to work around your mom to provide as much care as you can, even when you know full well she might be undoing some of your efforts.

You're at an age when it's important to build your own foundation. Are you in school or working full time? Are you dating and socializing with close friends? These things are crucial to your development -- and they'll make you a better, more engaged and hopeful caregiver. As hard as it is to put yourself first, it's the right thing to do. Your grandparents have lived long and full lives -- now it's your turn.

That doesn't mean you have to neglect them, but it might mean that at times, you have to make some uncomfortable choices or step back a bit. Remind yourself that you're not being selfish. You have to believe you deserve a full life with a steady job, a home of your own, and friends and family of your own. The best way to take care of your family is to have such a loving, healthy life that you truly have something to give.