Can I take legal action against my family for upsetting my mother with Alzheimer's?

Brendagb asked...

My 87 year old mother has been living with me for eight years. Six years ago, I ended up divorced. I don't know if that would have happened anyway or not. So it's just Mother and me. I recently started working from home, so that's a help. I make coffee, bring in the paper, keep tuna fish, etc made. Mother can get up, dress, go to a recliner and read the paper. She often watches television in her room during the day since I'm working in a home office. I can close the door if she stayed in the family room with the TV on, but she usually doesn't. She's got a lot a heart issues, is very frail and confused very much of the time.

Our main problem is some external family living in other states. A couple of family members are bipolar and have many other emotion issues. They'll call the house during the day and keep Mother on the phone for as much as 2 1/2 hours. They drag up everything that ever went on in life, and carry on incessantly on the phone. Mother just holds the phone, listens to them, and won't stand up for herself, me or anything. When she finally gets off the phone she is having bad angina pains and is almost in tears. She has said it's elder abuse they way they do her. I've told her I don't think it's fair to her. I think they should call her and talk about a beautiful sunset they saw, a butterfly or how wonderful something was that happened. But, they are calling her and making her miserable, and she's unable to do anything about it. I've not wanted to interfere, but lately I think they might be going to cause her a heart attack and maybe I'm supposed to interfere since I'm her caregiver and supposed to be protecting her.

Do I have any legal recourse? Can I file telephone harassment charges? I'm in Texas and haven't found out if I can legally record the conversations yet. I've asked the two that routinely call and upset Mother to please talk with her about plesantries, but they just resent me having any input and want me to mind my own business. I think it is my business when Mother can't stand up for herself. It's too much to expect an 87 year old with some dementia to turn a conversation around, or say hey, I don't want to hear constant complaints. I'm supposed to be taking care of her so am I supposed to be shielding her from inconsiderate and abusive relatives? Do I have any legal backing for trying to rotect her from them upsetting her? What if she does have a heart attack on the phone because one of them have upset her so much? I don't know what to do about it, and would really really like for my Mother's days to be spent as pleasantly as possible, and my home not be disrupted by a disturbed relative. Any advice?

Expert Answer

Carolyn Rosenblatt, R.N. and Attorney is the author of author of The Boomer's Guide to Aging Parents. She has over 40 years of combined experience in her two professions. As a nurse, she has extensive experience with geriatrics, chronic illness, pain management, dementias, disability, family dynamics, and death and dying. As a trial attorney, she advocated for for the rights of injured individuals and neglected elders. She is also co-founder of

You ask about your Mom with Alzheimer's and the abusive phone calls she gets from relatives. From your question, I'd like to focus on this phrase: "Maybe I'm supposed to interfere since I'm her caregiver and supposed to be protecting her."

The advice is yes, you are supposed to interfere and you do need to protect her. Family members with mental health issues are going to be concerned with themselves only. Perhaps they can't help it. Whatever their motivations are, it doesn't matter. You can't reason with them, as you've tried and found that it didn't work. Now it's time to change the rules and keep them from contacting her.

First, you need to remove the phone from the locations where your Mom has access to it. It may be inconvenient, but you need to stop her unlimited, unsupervised access to phone calls, as it is clear that these upset her and cause unnecessary distress in her life. If you need to change the phone number, do it. If you need to use a cell phone only, do it. Things are not the same as before and you need to make your home environment accommodate mom's needs, which have changed and will continue to change. You can protect her best by cutting off the ease by which inconsiderate or abusive family members have contact with her.

Next, I would write a letter to all those family members who have been upsetting your mom on the phone and let them know that starting now, you will be monitoring all phone calls she gets from them. All you need to say is that she is unable to handle their ordinary conversations and that you need to limit her calls because she gets so upset after some calls. Don't blame anyone specific. Just set firm limits. And stick to them.

If you're busy working during the day, let them know that they can only call when you can listen in and when you are available to keep the conversation appropriate. Give them days of the week and times that are specific (e.g., Sundays at 6pm, Thursdays at 7, etc.) and that work with your schedule.

You don't need to record the conversations, get others involved or take any additional steps unless this strategy of cutting off easy access and setting up a schedule so that you can monitor calls does not work. If your family members don't respect your limits and your word, then it's time to explore the option of getting a court order to restrain the verbal abusers. See an elder law attorney if you reach that point, and get advice about the best way to handle stopping further abuse.