How do I balance caring for my demanding mother and participating in my family?

A fellow caregiver asked...

How do you deal with a mother you love, but still treats you like a child. She blames me for everything that happens. She has neuropathy and edema. She had a mass removed from her pancreas a year ago. Her feet, ankles, and legs are really bad. We don't know what is causing the neuropathy or the edema. She is refusing to have anymore testing done. Everything has to revolve around her. My husband and children are getting very upset that I don't have time for them. My mom lives in an apartment by herself, but is at our house alot. In the past 18 days, she was here 15. It was a long holiday. I just don't know how to put my family first and not hurt my mother. With her health getting worse, we don't know...I also have a daughter that has UC (ulcerative colitis) and seizures. She is getting very upset at my mother and the way they are being pushed aside. Any advice would be great......

Expert Answer

Kenneth Robbins, M.D., is a senior medical editor of Caring.com. He is board certified in psychiatry and internal medicine, has a master's in public health from the University of Michigan, and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current clinical practice focuses primarily on geriatrics. He has written and contributed to many articles and is frequently invited to speak on psychiatric topics, such as psychiatry and the law, depression, anxiety, dementia, and suicide risk and prevention.

Setting limits with the people you love is a difficult but necessary part of life. That being said, your mother has made that a particularly challenging task. She has made a choice to stop medical treatment, though that treatment might improve her symptoms dramatically. As a result of this choice, she needs to be taken care of and the burden is on you. I don't know if there are other options available to her for assistance, but if not, you are in a tough bind. Your mother's needs are forcing you to choose between her and your husband and children.

Your mother has been behaving as though she is angry, and she has been putting her needs ahead of yours without showing any appreciation the conflicts this creates. It is not clear to me from your question whether this is the way she has always been, or whether this is a change. If this is the way she has always been, you will have to find a way to set clear limits with her and to assume no matter what you do, she will not believe you are doing enough. Under those circumstances, I would suggest you have a frank discussion with your family about what you are struggling with and let them help you set appropriate limits. If you haven't told them, it is important you tell them how much you love them and that you feel badly you are not attending to their needs. If your mother has always been as she is now, you probably have a reflexive way you deal with her, and your reflexes may not be helpful at this time. If your reflex is to do whatever she asks, you and your husband and children are going to pay a big price. It may be that your husband and children can help you set limits that get your needs, their needs and at least many of your mother's needs met. While it is true, you will not meet all her needs, she is making the choice to stop getting treatment for her medical conditions, and you can't fix that.

If your mother's behavior is not typical of her, then there are other things to consider. Is she depressed? Is her medical condition or medications she is taking causing psychiatric symptoms? I would strongly encourage you or someone else you and your mother trust to have a discussion with her and try to persuade her to get a careful medical evaluation that includes attention to those questions. It will be important for someone, perhaps you, to go with her to this appointment so the doctor understands how she has been doing and you get a clear understanding of what the doctor recommends. Once you have the information, I would suggest you bring your husband and children up to date, and together you plot a strategy that best meets everyones' needs, including yours. It may help you, whether this behavior is typical of your mother or new, to work for a bit with a psychotherapist to help you make decisions that will be best in both the short and long term.