Dear Family Advisor

My mother's new husband is so cheap that he won't provide the care she needs.

Last updated: Jul 06, 2010

My dad died about five years ago, and Mom remarried within the year. She's now recovering from a bad fall that broke her pelvis in three places. She needs assistance getting down the stairs, bathing, and going to therapy, but her husband (who's 10 years younger) seems to be more concerned with keeping his money in the bank than giving her the help she needs.

My siblings and I have rearranged our schedules so that we can take her to her appointments and run errands, but we all work full time. I feel like her husband is using us to do things that a loving spouse should do.

I wonder if we weren't helping out whether he'd hire someone -- or just let Mom do without. It makes me worry about her future needs. Do I need to be nice to him in order for Mom to get better care?

How nice you need to be to your mom's husband to improve her care isn't the core issue here. It's whether your mom can say what she wants and needs, both to you and to him.

Start by trying to look at the situation from her point of view. It may not be the marriage she enjoyed with your dad, but maybe it fills a void in her life. You can't judge her husband for not reacting the way your dad might have. It's a different kind of marriage, as difficult as that can be to accept. Is your mom happy? Do these things that bother you bother her? Does she feel the need to defend him to her children "“ which may make her feel caught in the middle?

Just because our parent marries again doesn't mean we always like the new spouse or bond with him or her. Parents remarry for lots of reasons -- love (hopefully), companionship, financial security, or simply not wanting to be alone.

When you're alone with her, tell her that you and your siblings are doing your best to help out, but you feel she needs more care than you're able to give while you're working full time. Ask her what she honestly thinks she needs -- from each of you, including her husband. At first, she may say, "not a thing," but keep gently nudging her.

To help her express how she really feels, play a game with her. I call it, "You know what I want?" Go back and forth, each sharing one thing that you really want (pedicure, banana split, your boss to listen to you, your kids to take the trash out the first time you ask). The longer you keep it going, the deeper it goes, and the more you open up about your life, the more she's apt to share about hers.

Let her talk; and listen, but don't judge. She needs to feel comfortable enough to vent.

Your mom may not feel close to her husband and not know how to say what she needs. She may feel uncomfortable about being older than him and having a health crisis she wasn't expecting. Maybe this marriage isn't working out -- many second marriages don't -- but she may be afraid to admit she jumped too soon. We never know for sure what's going on in someone else's relationship.

If she mentions problems in her marriage, remind her gently that she always has a choice -- that it's okay if she needs to change her life. Reassure her that you know she'd want you to do what's right for you if you needed to make a change.

Meanwhile, nicely share with your mother's husband what you and your siblings can do to supplement your mother's care. Will there be gaps? Probably. But you can't rescue your mother. She has to find her own voice and strength. She may even need to get angry.

Love her, and be an inspiration to her by speaking up courageously when you need to in your own life. Remind her that only she has the power to create her own life, and that involves stating her needs loudly and clearly. You can listen, encourage, and help out -- but you can't orchestrate her life.