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

8 answers | Last updated: Nov 22, 2016
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 Answers

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.


Community Answers

Donnajeanw answered...

Thank you, Dr. Scala, for your sensible, sensitive answer. So many people are in denial about a loved one's declining health. They seem to think  that if they can just get her/him over THIS hurdle, she/he will live forever. The truth is, they (and we) won't live forever. Withdrawal from life is a natural response to dying. It IS possible to accept impending death with peace. At some point, the kindest thing that loved ones can do is support this transition with patience, understanding and love, and as you so eloquently put it, allow them to "surrender to the direction she has chosen." 


Erp answered...

It is so important for those who will remain alive to accept that the time has come for the other person. There is no need to try make the other person "stay alive". And no need to feel guilt because you didn't try!


Yanotk answered...

I realize that many children feel that they must keep their parents alive, no matter what the cost. Ms. Scala's response was truly understanding and compassionate. An old person does go through the losses she expertly described. What I really don't understand is why anyone would want to be kept alive, when after they have navigated those losses, they then incur a very serious illness and become incapacitated. An example is dementia. The person being cared for doesn't even know s/he is being cared for, and obviously doesn't appreciate it.


Bethkent5 answered...

Having just lived through this with both my parents within the last two years I would only like to add one other suggestion. Even tho someone might have chosen to give up the fight, they are still here. When my parents were leaving us I kept them surrounded with their favorite flowers, pictures, grandchildren and anything else that would let them know that the people they loved would be with them on the journey. We talked about old times and what a good time we had had together. Take care to say and do all the things that will allow you all to "Rest in Peace." Support and love are just as important as medical intervention....even more!!


1019wolfram answered...

You sound like a wonderful daughter. I am trying to help my dad with alzheimers and my mom who sometimes gets so overwhelmed caring for him (married 60 years) she wants some relief. I try to understand as I cared for my terminal husband with colon cancer. At the end I wanted him to stick around for me and my son. He hurt and he was ready. When I prayed and was able to let the Lord take over I felt a sense of peace. Now I know Ted is in heaven and though I'm still lonely it was his time to go. Support your mom and try to make her days as best as you can. Remember to take care of yourself too. Sometimes our loved ones are tired and we are forced to let go because we love them so. Take care. Joan Huxhold


Norman answered...

Accept mom's condition as it is. Try not to OWN her life/death decisions. Give her all the time she needs. Eventually she will either come out of her emotional slump or be consumed by it.Trying to force her to make a decision by constantly badgering her to snap out of it is annoying to her and possibly very selfish on your part. Offer her a 'will to live' by being as empathetic, pleasant and helpful as possible by showing her, discreetly, that life IS worth living, unless you can determine that life has been such a burden on her that she had long decided life not to be worthwhile. As the Beatles song so well put it: "Let it be, let it be, let it be..."


A fellow caregiver answered...

I am just going through this with my 90 yr old mother. In the last 3 years she has lost 7 members of her family including Dad and two of her children. All of her good friends have died and she feels very alone. She continues to have "mini strokes" and is gradually losing her ability to think clearly. Her heart is also failing and she has gynecological cancer. She keeps saying that she is too tired to go on living and she just wants to go. I have finally come to the conclusion that she is really prepared for just that and whenever it happens it will be a good thing for her even though I will miss her terribly. It is hard to let her go but I am doing my best to prepare for that inevitability. I also know that seeking help with grief is sometimes the only thing that helps us work through this part of our life.