How can I deal with my increasingly embarrassing mother in public?

5 answers | Last updated: Jul 14, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother just turned 70 and while she always liked to nose into her children's life, lately she has gotten worse. She talks to everyone about her concerns, whether they want to hear about it or not. I am embarrassed to go out in public with her. I need advice on how to cope when she starts behaving like this.

Expert Answers

Jonathan Rosenfeld is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco.

    Let's start by addressing your mother's health. Anytime you notice a striking shift in someone's behavior, particularly an elderly person's,  you should rule out medical issues. It's easy to forget about medical issues, because they're often invisible. If your mother has not had a full medical exam recently, see if you can arrange for one. Early dementia, glandular problems, a change in medication and other conditions can lead to changes in behavior.      

If medical issues are ruled out, try talking directly with your mother about this issue. Point out in an neutral, nonaccusatory way the changes you've observed in her behavior.  If she agrees with you, and is open to help, that is where you can focus your energy. The two of you could, for example, develop some working agreements about how to handle the situation when you are out in public together. Perhaps you could signal her with coded language that she has crossed a boundary with strangers and needs to stop. It might be a good idea to agree on a back up plan in case she doesn't pick up the signal and continues her behavior. You could, for example, gently take her by the arm and lead her away. This approach would spare both of you embarrassment.    

If your mother doesn't agree with you about her behavior and/or has no interest in changing, there may be little you can do, and I would remind you of the limits of your responsibility. I presume that the other people she speaks to are adults. You can let them take responsibility to end conversations that they don't want to participate in. As long it does not lead to an unsafe situation for your mother, you can choose to excuse yourself. If you walk away a few times and, in a private moment, tell your mother why, this may be the most effective way to get your message across.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

I have this problem with my mother as well. She makes racist or sexual comments to people and is overly personal. Plus she is horrifically mean to my father who has Parkinson's, both in public and private. It's very depressing. I've tried to talk with her about it but she sees only as far as the end of her nose. Plus I live across the country and cannot afford to travel to see them except at their expense and pleasure (they can readily afford it). Last time I tried to discuss these things with my mother, she basically told me not to plan to visit again. My poor dad; it breaks my heart because he's a quiet, polite man, made even more gentle by the effects of the Parkinson's so her behavior is a complete non sequitur to his and, as I say, she's also abusive to him. Very sad.

Nana4nana answered...

Rule out UTI. Urinary Tract infections cause the oddest behavior in the elderly. One would be amazed. Please- see a good elderly care doctor- Geriatrics. Dimentia starts with overt behavior in my experience with mom. She could be downright rude, zero filter on what she would say. Then little mishaps like leaving the sink over flow- bUT she insisted she didn't leave the water on. Spilled salt in her chair- but she didn't do it. You can't hold mom accountable until you speak with a dr.

Anniewhereugo answered...

Oh my, she sounds a bit like my Mother. I agree with the expert answer, though with my Mom it is simply her personality and habit to be a rude snob. She likes to go to the hospital and while at the ER with a heart attack complaint she will joke and laugh with the staff. She says the most outrageous stuff while trying to be hip, cool and their best friend. She will ask a Hindu NA if she wears her head scarf on her day off, or what color her favorite Sari is and then go into detail about how she knows so much about people from the Orient because she has her Master degree in sociology etc etc. She talks about, and down, to people constantly and has been asked to leave several independent living places and now lives with me. I no longer accompany her to the hospital and ask the nurse to call me when she is ready to be released. I have talked to her about it and sometimes she says she knows she can be a bit overbearing and sometimes she makes excuses. It's hard to deal with and I have resorted to standing behind her and rolling my eyes and swirling my finger around my ear. The only time I have blown a gasket is when she is out in public and coughs without covering her mouth, which she does all the time since she smokes. I hate telling my own Mother to "Cover your mouth when you cough". And yes, she has all her mental capabilities left....she's always been this way but does seem to be getting worse with age. I think they get to a point where the older they get, the less they care. My sympathies.

Ann in Calfironia

Whitesheepofthefamily answered...

I'm not clear what it is she's saying or to whom she's saying it. You mention being embarrassed in public, though, so I'm guessing that you mean she's talking to complete strangers about her concerns about her adult kids. If that's the case, I guarantee that most strangers don't want to hear it, as you said. So, the good news is that they're going to be looking for an escape from her conversation without you having to pull her away. The other good news is that these are strangers. What investment do they have in your life, or you in theirs? Are they going to tell your friends? Your coworkers? If not, then don't worry about them.