How can we get mom to take a step back from being a controlling caregiver?

6 answers | Last updated: Nov 05, 2016
Senns asked...

My 71 year old father suffered a head injury 15 years ago and now lives apart from my mother in a retirement home (to make care easier). He is still very much mobile and can make basic decisions (some better than others). My mom is still in daily contact with him trying in her own way to "support" him (making suggestions about doctor appointments, reminding him of them, driving him to appointments as necessary, etc. The problem is that she refuses to take care of herself and step back from the situation a bit. As a result, she takes great offense when he won't do things her way and calls me between 2-4 times a day to tell me what my dad 'has done wrong' today. Some days she'll tell me that she just feels guilty because she can't do more for him and other days it's a venting phone call about how he flew off at her when she suggested something. She is also becoming increasingly clingy to my brother and I with phone calls and dropping in a lot. I have learned years ago that I need to set up boundaries with her 'venting' phone calls, but short of cutting the phone call short, nothing else seems to work. We've tried explaining that venting about Dad constantly is not something we can handle or appreciate but getting through to my mom is next to impossible (talking in a calm, caring manner does nothing). I realize that her role isn't easy, but I don't feel the need to be her sounding board about how hard she has it when my Dad won't listen to her or whatever issue she has with him. Help!!


Expert Answers

Maria Basso Lipani writes a popular website on geriatric care topics, where she puts her expertise as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to good use answering care planning questions. Maria is a graduate of Columbia University School of Social Work and is licensed in California and New York.

 You learned years ago to “set up boundaries” with your mom and now it’s time to reinforce them.  The good news is that it sounds as if you were successful once in modifying her behavior.  Spend a few moments thinking back to what you did before and why it worked.  Chances are it would again. 

Two approaches that might also work:


1) Begin telling her at the outset of each call that you have only a fixed amount of time to talk (5 minutes, 10 minutes) before you have to hang up.  Then stick to the time frame you have established no matter what.  Your mother must learn to respect your time and this should help her to do just that. 


2) Stop answering when she calls and opt instead to call her another time, preferably a few hours to a day later.  The benefit of this approach is that it breaks this cycle in which she gets upset with your father and is immediately able to unleash her feelings onto you.  If you don’t answer when she calls she’ll be forced to find another way to cope with the difficult feelings she’s having.  Just make sure your brother follows your lead!


Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

Sometimes all you need is an impartial person to listen to you. I think I might encourage your mother to talk to a caregivers group. Sometimes you just need someone to listen who does not know the situation. The internet is great too because you dont have to see people's expressions when you type something. I think she feels guilty that she is not there all of the time so she over does things. I talk to my sister who thinks that i am doing too much, but she is my sister who has her own issues with my parents and it sounds like you have your own issues too. I would set a time when you will answer her calls. This might help your mother calm down between times. She will know that there is a time when you will be able to talk to her so her sense of panic and anger might ease a little bit. Something that is major today -- like missed meals will not feel as big a deal later on. If she has a time limit and a certain time when she will talk to you she can really monitor what she is saying. Is this really an earthshaking thing that i want to share or is there something else that is more important to talk about. After a few times talking about everything -- and not getting to what you really want to talk about-- i think she will better use her time with you. i think your attitude might change too when you know that you will not be rushed when you talk to her. you will be better prepared to listen to her and not be impatient.


Joyg answered...

Having her join a support group so that she has a place to vent is excellent. Maybe the assisted living home has a recommendation. In the Tucson area we even have a group that meets on an interactive phone call once a month. Check out the various groups in your area and maybe even go with her once.


Ckh answered...

I am a bit in your Mother's situation. I'm younger than she is. Part of my problem is that I suffer from such guilt about putting my husband in care. He is improving physically being in care--to the point he wants to come out by Xmas. I can't do this anymore so one of my ways of compensating is to smother him a bit with extra care. It is doing neither of us any good but it is a hard node to break. Is your Mother still feeling quilty or is she so used to controlling your Dad that she becomes a bit dictatorial about this. Perhaps you could reinforce that he is in the best place with the best care. Send her on a cruise or a trip to Vegas with her girl buddies or something to just break the pattern. Hope it works out for you


An hour 4 me answered...

I went thru the same thing with my parents. Setting boundries is essential.It took my mother well over a year to stop smothering dad.Remind your mother often that dad is an adult and able to make his own decisions.Also suggest that she pick her battles. And frankly you do the same. Does she have any hobbies? also I blatently change the subject to politics, current events,religon, any thing to get her to think of something besides herself and her issues with your dad.


A fellow caregiver answered...

Sounds like your mom needs some T.L.C. She apparently has always been a care giver, Your dad. you and possibly any other children.You never stop being a mom. Sounds like a wonderful mom. Even if she can be a little over bearing at times.As some of the other comments said, do something for her now. Get her involved with some seniors program. Alot of churches have programs and activites and trips they go on to keep them busy...Give it a try im sure she will love it....