How do I encourage my mom to continue to want to live?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mom complains of feeling sick, but the doctors can't find anything wrong with her. Now, she's starting to give up and won't even try to get well. What can I do to encourage her to live when she's giving up?

Expert Answer

Martha Clark Scala has been a psychotherapist in private practice since 1992, with offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco, California. She regularly writes about grief and loss, the necessity of self-care, and substance abuse. Her e-newsletter, "Out on a Limb," is available to subscribers through her website.

The final years of life often present many, many losses--not just loss due to death of a spouse, peers, and other relatives. Most seniors must also navigate loss of physical mobility or other senses such as sight, taste, and hearing. And then there are losses in the realm of mental capacity, vitality, sexual functioning, independence, employment, financial security, housing, and self-sufficiency such as no longer being able to drive or cook.

It takes a highly resilient soul to weather all of these losses without it taking an emotional toll. If your mom feels like giving up, you might want to take an inventory of the losses that she has faced. Since the doctors are not finding anything physically wrong with her, it suggests that her malaise may have an emotional component.

Often, grief due to multiple losses gets mistaken for depression but whether it’s grief or depression that has affected your mom, it would probably be useful to have her evaluated for clinical depression. While many people, not just elders, are reluctant to rely on anti-depressant medication, there are times when this option helps to lift someone out of a hopeless, despairing mindset.

Finally, you may have to wrestle with allowing your mom to choose the course of her remaining days, months, or years. You can only do what you can do to try to reverse or alter her mindset, and then at some point, it may serve both you and your mom to surrender to the direction she has chosen.