How can we get our mother to stop calling us multiple times a day?

19 answers | Last updated: Aug 08, 2016
Not2zen asked...

My father died a year ago August and my mom is now living in their Assisted Living apartment. Although she has always been a very controlling and manipulative person, along with constant anxiety, she has taken all of that to a new level. All that combined with a fairly advanced stage of dementia and the family is at their wits end. She uses her telephone constantly, calling each of us 10-20 times a day, sometimes a few minutes apart. She can't hear well and also often doesn't know who she has called so there is a lot of emotion tied up in a simple 'hello' telephone call - but usually she is calling to tell us what is bothering her and we "have to do something about it right now". Aside from taking away her telephone, we really don't know how to handle this anymore. And it is tearing apart my siblings, as they don't all see and talk to the same 'mother with dementia'. Any suggestions. We are in the process of having her moved to a more secure unit, no longer in the assisted living area, but she will really fight that move too, as will one of the siblings.


Expert Answers

Joanne Koenig Coste is a nationally recognized expert on Alzheimer's care and an outspoken advocate for patient and family care. She is the author of Learning to Speak Alzheimer's. Also, she currently is in private practice as an Alzheimer's family therapist. Ms. Koenig Coste also serves as President of Alzheimer Consulting Associates, implementing state-of-the-art Alzheimer care throughout the United States.

This must be so so stressful for you. I feel distressed just reading about your dilemma but to live with your mother calling multiple times a days and her ongoing manipulation seems overwhelming. It sounds as if you are also having to deal with other family dynamics without everyone on the same page.

My immediate reaction is the same as fellow-responder Elaine who suggests using caller ID and screening your calls. From years of experience, I can report this works exceedingly well. In many cases the behavior has actually been reversed after a number of calls have been placed with only an answering machine to respond.

Do not expect her 'controlling and manipulative' personality to be any different with Dementia than it was before the cognitive changes occurred and chances are the anxiety will also remain; you may actually see an exagerration of her former personality traits.

The diagnosis of a dementing neurological process leaves her incapable of controlling many of her actions. If she is not able to be in control, then you and your siblings need to be in charge and to act accordingly. This role-reversal is difficult at best but take heart because it may be short lived once you begin monitoring the phone calls. The fact that she is being moved to a more secure unit certainly underscores the staff agreeing with your assessment; the dementia is progressing and her skills are failing. There is a distinct possibility that phones will not be allowed in her new residence. Hopefully, she will also be kept busier with activities and enrichment programs and have less time to be making phone calls. It is often boredom and not need that leads to this kind of repetitive behavior. Keeping the person with dementia occupied frequently negates the aberrant behavior.

Meanwhile you need to save your own sanity by not allowing her to still have control over your life. Do take care of you!

SEE ALSO: Find Memory Care Near You


Community Answers

Elaines answered...

Not2zen, This may sound cold but get caller ID and screen your calls. That way when you take her calls you will be better able to deal with her, more patient and calm. As long as the facility she is in is alert enough to her needs and she is safe a few calm calls is better than 20 frazzeled ones. Just my 2 cents. Elaine


Snowbirds answered...

I had to give my mom a phone but only gave her local calling and we are not local. I had no choice as I was working at the time and she would have called every few minutes. she wants long distance but she can't figure out how to do it and I made her a deal if she could get it, she can have it. she won't even try though. face that later. we are rvers and travel the country but she is in a home where she is safe. had to realize I could not take care of her long ago but I do know she is well cared for.


Hilarytcmn answered...

We are having the same problem and I agree 100% that you have to lessen your own stress by screening the calls. My Mom calls and leaves a voice mail that says she is missing something; and then calls back to say she has found it. This happens over and over. I make a conscious choice to only pick up her calls one or two times a day, as whatever her 'emergency' is often resolves itself before I could possibly help. Also, she cannot dial well and we received a phone bill with over 50 long distance misdials. By looking at the number combinations, we could see she was attempting to make a local call to one of her children and misdials. We ended up taking away her long distance capabilities. I can only imagine what the people that picked up those phone calls thought! I have also turned off my phone or forwarded by landline to my cell phone and put it on vibrate to prevent the intrusiveness of of the phone ringing all day long. That way she can leave a message and relieve some anxiety, but we don't have to listen to the ringing!


A fellow caregiver answered...

My mom calls every phone # that she knows numerous times a day. She doesn't care if she wakes people up 4:30 in the morning. She will call my # & work # . If you do not answer she usually calls back every 5 minutes unless she luckily reaches someone else to talk to. Some of my family members have blocked her phone # & will call her off & on. Others have taken the ringer off. Some of us have even got to the point that we do not answer the phone & will check messages. When she does not have access to long distance, she will call friends or family members collect numerous times even the ones who already called her during the day. Sometimes she has even called another # in my work to tell them that she was in the hospital & had to reach me.


A fellow caregiver answered...

10-20 is nothing, my grandma rings every day around 100 times


Dougster answered...

it's a problem for sure. My wife's mother has Alzheimers, and took to calling me constantly because she saw me as capable. Despite the fact that she has 3 children, she wanted me to help, immediately on any number of concerns, mostly non-critical issues. I finally started letting them go to voicemail, and answering after she had calmed down or forgotten what had gotten her so upset. More often than not, she would quickly forget what had gotten her riled.


Iamjackiej answered...

This is so helpful to read. My boyfriend's mother is in her mid-stage of dementia and has good days and bad days. She has four children, all living within an hour of her, BUT their phones are long distance. With that said, she calls me numerous times a day. I feel very guilty when I don't answer her calls but find myself saying the same thing to her each time. After reading this I feel comfortable knowing it's ok to not answer each time she calls. She is living in an assisted living facility and is taken care of but I know she's lonely and wants her family to always be there with her. I feel bad for her and put myself in her shoes often and it makes me so sad. This is a terrible, terrible disease! Thanks again!


A fellow caregiver answered...

I wish my mother would call me! She just lays in the bed while her boyfriend "takes care" of her- he gives her pain meds that she doesn't need while he watches TV or takes her car off somewhere. She says he makes her meals but she has lost 20 pounds. They are both against any help. I visited during Christmas holidays and she kept feeling nauseous. I told her she should eat when she takes her meds. She said her boyfriend is taking care of her and I need to leave her alone. He goes with her to the doctor and doesn't want my sister or I to go so we really don't know how she is doing. He cant remember much more than she can. I live out if town and have called the Dr with no response. I am getting so frustrated! She and I were very close but now I know she will forget me sooner because her boyfriend controls her! She told me the other day she didn't know what she would do without him!


A fellow caregiver answered...

I have considered using the option of cutting off her phone access during normal sleeping hours to stop the night-time calls. The daytime calls I can ignore, though she rolls through her address book during any down time and calls everyone repeatedly. I have tried to tell relatives (who probably think I am being cold) to monitor calls and only answer when they have time and want to speak to her. Calls can be 5 minutes apart with no memory of the previous call. She lives in an active Assisted Living facility and as long as she is engaged in activities, she's fine. But boredom at night is unbearable for her. She's happy where she's at and her calls are almost always positive, just overwhelming.


Memphisqueen1966 answered...

I don't have an answer for this but am so relieved to read these comments. My Dad calls me over and over again several times in a row, sometimes 20 times a day.


Rakshita answered...

My sister called me 9 times today, but she calls her kids like 30 times a day. The conversation is always the same-- she has no food, she's afraid to wash her hair, she's lonely, her son was cruel to her. I try to set boundaries by promising to call her every other day. When she completely rejects that plan, I explain that my husband has congestive heart failure, so I'm busy to the max with home management, caregiving, and his appointmemts. Her response was that she thinks her phone calls should have priority over my personal schedule. She really shows no regard or mercy for the very few relatives who still talk to her at all. Today when I told her I needed to hang up after talking 20 minutes, she said she just wanted to jump out the window and die. After our talks, it's not easy for me get over her emotional intensity. The discussion above is quite helpful. Thx.


Trideryck answered...

This discussion has been really helpful. I've only recently had to place my mother in a facility (4 days ago) and I'm already in the exact same situation as not2Zen and many of you are in. Growing up, my mom was very manipulative, using the age-old tool of 'guilt trips' and such to the point that as an adult I had very little contact with her outside of a weekly phonecall. Now as her only family left, I'm the focus of her calls. In those 4 days, I think I've had about 75 phone calls, all hours of the day and night. Most are centered about misplaced objects, being lonely, being in pain,being ignored by the nursing staff - which while possible, not to the extend of her calls I dont think - and the fun ones, demands for things such as a child might ask for. "I want candy now." "Bring me a milk shake" "I need gum." Etc.

So far I've chosen to answer about 3-4 calls a day and visit once a day, given that we're just in the first week of her placement. I will have to taper visits down at some point, probably 3 times a week, once she (I hope!) settles in and gets into a routine.

The toughest part I think is overcoming the notion that we're being 'cold' about things such as screening calls and being selective what time of day to answer. We're never going to fully let go of that notion because we're feeling human beings and we can't help but be emotional situation. Once we accept that, we have to worry about our own sanity and stress first and foremost I feel or else our own lives fall apart and we won't be able to support and offer comfort to any of our loved ones.


A fellow caregiver answered...

I came upon this website looking for research papers that address the question whether prolonging phone calls with dementia patients is beneficial. My gut reaction is that longer phone calls are beneficial as they appreciated by the dementia patient and create a sense of normalcy for that person and may prevent 20 or 30 calls a day. Keeping a conversation going at an appropriate level commensurate with the dementia person's abilities and cognitive level seems to stimulate the person's mind, just like physical exercise stimulates a muscle and keeps it from deteriorating. Some parents of autistic children may easily grasp this concept.

So, too, longer phone conversations address the feelings of loneliness and isolation that many dementia patients experience, and possibly may diminish the person's anxiety and need to constantly try to make telephone contact with friends and family.

After a phone conversation, it may be a good idea to arrange fro a time for another phone call to be placed by the caregiver. Giving the dementia person reassurance that the caregiver will definitely call may suppress the need for an excessive number of calls made by the dementia person.

And this approach seems to be consistent with the golden rule - - do unto others . . .

Just my idea. Looking forward to comments. I could see this issue being addressed in a rigorous study done by some enterprising grad student who wants to make a name for themselves and help move the care of dementia patients forward. This is an area where new thinking seems to be in rare supply.


A fellow caregiver answered...

I think that this would be a great research topic and I can offer two comments. fIrst, i find that shorter conversations are better than long ones. As the conversation goes on my father repeats the same questions over and over and he gets frustrated and downright verbally abusive, swearing and calling me horrible names. Also, he phones me five minutes later with no recollection of the phone call. I know tell him that I Will phone three times a day on days off and one time a day on work days. I also visit regularly. My brother who gets more calls than me is at his wits end and is considering moving out of town.

There is a huge difference in dealing with a child on the autism spectrum (my son has Aspergers). While my son could understand and learn from and deal with his anxiety and issues and is now a successful and independent adult, my father will only get worse. While logical consequences works with children, I have learned that they are less successful in dealing with dementia, and that is the rub.


A fellow caregiver answered...

I agree with the previous person. It is not necessarily a good thing to have long phone conversations with my mother who is developing dementia rather rapidly. Longer phone calls don't seem to make a difference in terms of relieving her anxiety, and reassuring my Mom that I will call her the next day also doesn't matter. She calls whenever she wants to call me, regardless of what I say about my own work schedule or that I will call her once a day minimum or if it is 5:30am. I now have to put my Mom's phone number on the "rejected caller" list in my Contacts list on my cell phone at night and other times when I can't spend 30 minutes trying to explain something to her, so that when she calls it goes to voice mail. This way the phone isn't ringing at all hours of the night or interrupting me at work, and I can call her when I have the time to talk. I've only been doing this for a little while now and while she doesn't like it, she seems to be calling less frequently. Not an easy situation for anyone going through it. My Mom lives in a nursing home and they offer very little in the way of activities to keep my mother occupied, unfortunately. The phone situation is distressing to say the least, and she seems to only call me multiple times per day, not my siblings. I hate to think of her feeling lonely so I do talk to her at least once per day and I visit her 2-3 times per week, but I also am the primary caregiver for my father who lives in an independent retirement facility (but he doesn't drive so I do all his errands, make all his doctor appointments and take him to all of them, etc). He also calls me multiple times per day when he is anxious about something. It's terrible to have to ignore their calls at times, but it's the only thing I can do to preserve my own sanity.


Louisei answered...

It has been very helpful finding this website and reading people's threads on here. My mother has always been a controlling and manipulating person also, which has got worse now she is in her late seventies and has dementia. I also divert her number to voice mail some days as I have been driven crazy at times by numerous calls every day from her and have found it is the only way to deal with it for the sake of your own sanity.
To the person who commented about longer telephone conversations that may help reduce the amount of calls, whilst I understand in theory helping with the loneliness and anxiety felt, people with dementia tend to repeat themselves because they cannot hold a thought for any length of time obviously because their memory has been affected, different degrees at different stages, and are not really capable of having a long conversation, They, also have no concept of time and I really don't think that it would reduce the amount of calls, certainly not in my Mum's case.


A fellow caregiver answered...

This is quite a prevalent problem. I have had my mother in two assisted living facilities over the past months. I gave her a cell phone in the first place as I did not think she was getting proper care and this was for me to monitor her needs. However at the second place I feel confident that she is being well cared for. So I kept the cell phone as I too was getting screaming calls all times of the day and night for help. She also screams there at the facility it is a habit of the brain damage of the stroke. Now she is back screaming for a cell phone and I refuse to give her one as it just upsets me dealing with her and causes issues with the staff. My mother too has always been a control person and it has been her way or the highway. I am the only family member dealing with her and I have come to the conclusion that I need my own peace of mind in order to better deal with her needs. So I am not giving her back the phone. Do I feel guilty for denying her the phone? Yes but I also have to protect my own self as her main point of reference. I go to see her numerous times during the week to monitor her well being. Thank God she is in a great facility and I feel good about her care!


Kath914 answered...

I too am dealing with the numerous phone calls. ( average of 20 per day), and all with the same question....Is anyone coming over tonight? This is after we just left her. This past weekend, my husband and I went on an overnight for the first time in almost a year. My friend came and spent 5 hours with Mom, had lunch with her and sat and went through pics. Mom managed to call 28 times on that day.....this is just an example. It seems almost like the more company she gets, the more she needs. We see her about 4 times a week and my daughters see her once each. My brother lives in another state, and sees her once or twice a year for about 2 hours each. My neice lives 20 minutes away and only visits when her Dad (my brother) comes. He calls every couple of weeks....I am the only game is town ( with the help of my wonderful husband) and it is wearing us down. She moved her in 2003 at the age of 83 and lived in an apt about a mile from us. She did well physically until this past Jan when she fell. Her dementia, however has been progressing for several years and we have tried to deal with it, but now she is in an assisted living facility, refusing to take part in social activities and sits and calls me over an over....I laugh and say how can she forget everything else but my phone number???? I know people say to ignore the calls, but she just calls every couple of minutes. I am thinking of blocking her number and saying our phone is out of order and then call her several times a day. Any suggestions? I read a comment on another site and the woman wanted to know why it is just the mothers.....LOL Kathy