How do I handle my elderly mother who doesn't want me to travel at all?

1 answer | Last updated: Dec 05, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My 90 year old mother thinks she is going to die "any minute", although there is no real medical reason to feel that way. She did have gastric lymphoma 3 years ago, but she is in remission. She gets very upset if I leave town for business or personal trips. The guilt factor bothers me so much, but I must live my life! If I wait to travel until she is gone, I might be unable to do it! How should I handle her? Am I selfish to want to travel anyway?

Expert Answers

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

Being an effective and compassionate caretaker for your mom requires you to also take care of yourself. If you're going to be an effective caregiver over the long haul, you need to have compassion for yourself as well. I imagine your mother doesn't want to get in the way of you advancing your career or having fun. Neither you nor your mother is selfish because you have needs that conflict. While your mother is entitled to her feelings, you're entitled to live your life.

It would be helpful to understand why your mother gets upset. She may or may not be able to articulate this to you, but it would be a good first step for you to ask her directly.

It's important when you speak to your mother that your question not be heard as criticism. Don't say, for example, "How come you always get so upset and angry when I go out of town?" Showing empathy is more likely to yield useful information. "Mom, it's very understandable that you're more comfortable when I'm in town. I'd like to make things easier for you when I go away. Can we talk about that?"

There may be ways to ease your mother's fears and concerns besides canceling your travel plans. Talk to her about arrangements you can make that would comfort her, like a predictable daily phone call, for example. Are there resources in your community, or your mother's, that you can tap into? What about extended family members, friends, or neighbors? Maybe there are people at her church or synagogue who would be willing to look in on her or bring by a meal while you’re gone. There may be individuals in your community who would be glad for the opportunity to help out. The only way to know for sure is to enquire.

If there's no one you feel you can ask to help, talk to your mother about hiring someone to help her while you're gone. Even if she's in relatively good health, it sounds as if she feels frail, so it would probably make her feel safer in your absence if someone could come by every day or every few days to check on her, do some light housekeeping, or drive her to the grocery store or to medical appointments.

Your discussions with your mother (it will likely take more than one) will help you understand her precise fears, so you're better able to respond to them. It could be that your mother is motivated by a need for reassurance that you're comfortable as her caretaker. In other words, her upset at the prospect of your absence may be a test. Your verbal reassurances, as well as your efforts to make practical arrangements to make her more comfortable, will ultimately be more effective than changing your travel plans.