How do we deal with Mom rejecting us due to dementia?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Mom, 81, has suddenly decided my sisters and I are not her real family, her granddaughter and grandson are her family. I used to take her to the doctor, shopping, etc., now she only wants them to do these things. She gets upset when any of us say we want to go with her, and starts crying. She was diagnosed with early stages of dementia a couple of years ago. Our feelings are hurt, and we want to be there for her but she doesn't want us to do anything for her - just them. What can we do?

Expert Answer

Jytte Lokvig, PhD, coaches families and professional caregivers and designs life-enrichment programs and activities for patients with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. Her workshops and seminars help caregivers and families create a healthy environment based on dignity and humor. She is the author of Alzheimer's A to Z: A Quick-Reference Guide.

Your mother's rejection must feel like a stab to your heart; of course your feelings are hurt. No doubt this rejection was brought on because of her dementia. An innocent remark or gesture on your part could have brought back something unpleasant from her childhood or youth and because of her dementia she's unable to separate the present from the past. A good guess is that her rejection of you and your sisters has come about because you are so good at handling your mother's affairs that she feels inadequate and ineffectual. In your efforts to do the best for her, you may have unintentionally lessened her sense of self-worth. She needs to feel more involved. By no means is this a suggestion that you put her back in control of her own affairs. But you can give her the feeling (illusion?) that she's involved in the decision-making by having her make innocuous choices, i.e. time for an appointment.

However before that can happen you need to reconnect with her and you'll need the support of her grandchildren.

If I were in your shoes, this is what I would do:

I would give Mother time and space without contact with my sisters or me. This may help her forget whatever brought on her negative reactions. This could mean a week or a whole month of no direct contact with her. After this "cooling-off period" I would arrange with the grandchildren to meet them and Mother for a casual lunch in a public place. My sisters and I would decide who starts the reconnecting. At this point it's important that only one of us is present.

I'll keep our conversation as light and neutral as possible, mentioning nothing about the estrangement or my pain. If I feel that my emotions might take over or I sense the slightest discomfort on Mother's part, I'll excuse myself with a smile and a very short remark, i.e. "Good to see you" and leave quickly. At no time have I mentioned the hurt feelings she has caused nor reminded her how much we siblings had done for her.

Once your mother accepts your casual encounters in public places, you can start reintroducing yourselves into her daily life with the help of her grandchildren, but take your time and keep everything low-key. Always be prepared to step out of the picture again if you get a hint of her old reactions. This is all very difficult for you, but try to remember that her disease is causing this rejection and she cannot control her emotions and reactions. Apparently negative feelings linger much longer at full strength in the seriously memory-impaired. Your mother needs your love, empathy and patience. Good luck.