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Dear Dr. Debra,


Iíve recently had to place my elderly mother in a nursing home. Of course, sheís not happy there. But she wasnít happy before, either. Sheís a difficult woman. I visit her every day. Yet when Iím there, all she does is complain. The complaint that bothers me the most is how no one visits her. Sheíll even list the visitors of her roommates. I finally said to her, ďMom, Iím here. Doesnít that count?Ē But she didnít say anything. Iím really hurt about this and donít know what to do. Iím afraid if I try to say more, sheíll cry and guilt me.


A Hurting Son



Dear Hurting Son,


Iím sorry you have to go through such a difficult time with your mother. Itís hard to be a caregiver to an elderly parentóto watch them deteriorate and to have to do your best to take care of them, sometimes under painful circumstances.


Even though your mother isnít appreciating the time and effort you put into taking care of her, I want to acknowledge you for visiting her every day. Good for you!


There are plenty of aging parents whoíd love to be able to see one (or more) family members on a daily basis, but canít because their children donít live nearby, or are too busy, or just donít care. To be a faithful son to a difficult elderly parent shows what a caring, dedicated man you are.


Parents often are the hardest people to set boundaries with because theyíre the ones who programmed you to respond to them in the ways you do. You might not like the way they behave toward you, but your parent(s) brought you up believing you deserved to be treated that way. They also didnít raise you to communicate in an assertive manner. 


However, itís not too late. Even though your mother is ill and elderly doesnít mean you canít set boundaries with her about how you deserve to be treated.


You need to start by validating her loneliness. Say something like, ďMom, I can understand youíre unhappy to be in this facility, and your life is difficult. (Maybe describe what you know sheís going through physically as well.) I know youíd like to have more people visit you.Ē


Then tell your mother how she makes you feel when she complains. ďMom, it hurts my feelings when you donít acknowledge that I visit you every day. It makes me feel that you donít care that Iím here.Ē


Encourage her to express her feelings in a more specific way that doesnít make you feel hurt. ďMom, when you say, no one visits you, do you mean you wish more people would come see you?Ē If she agrees to this, then validate her feelings. ďI can understand how you might feel lonely or bored and want more visitors than just me.Ē


Your mother may or may not apologize for hurting you. Itís likely that sheíll continue to complain each time she sees you. When she says no one visits her, have the conversation with her again. Iíd give her two weeks of trying to stop her through giving her feedback EVERY time she hurts you. Itís important to be consistent with her. (She is allowed two weeks because sheís elderly and perhaps ill. Younger, healthy parents should receive only two warnings.)


If she persists, then itís time to set your boundary. Once she starts to say how no one visits her, stand up. Using a calm, firm voice, say, ďMom, Iíve told you how I feel hurt when you complain about having no visitors, as if Iím not even here. My presence doesnít seem to be important to you today, so Iím going to leave. Iíll return tomorrow, and hopefully we can have a nice time together.Ē


Then IMMEDIATELY leave the room. Then she wonít be able to make you feel guilty through crying because you wonít be there to know what sheís doing.


Your mother may escalate her negative behavior to the point that someone from the establishment calls you to tell you that your motherís upset. Just explain what youíre doing, and tell them youíll return on the following day to see her.


The next morning, if sheís pleasant, at the end of your visit, tell her what a wonderful time you had with her. You want to reward her for good behavior. J Again, stay consistent with the positive comments on her behavior.


If she complains, either about you leaving or about having no visitors, then repeat the boundary and immediately leave. It might take some time, but soon sheíll start appreciating you more, and youíll have a more tolerable visit with her.


In addition, perhaps you can drum up visitors for her. This could take some of the burden of entertaining her off your shoulders. If she belongs to a church, contact the minister with requests for visitation from him and the members. Other organizations or some of her old friends might be willing to help. You could also invest in a laptop that has video/phone capabilities. Then you can call friends and family, and she can watch them on the computer while she talks to them.


However, warn her that too many complaints might drive her company away her and make them reluctant to return. If she wants repeat visitors, sheíll need to speak pleasantly with them.


One final thing: Speak to her doctor about having her evaluated for depression. Depression is often not diagnosed in the elderly. Antidepressants might help her attitude improve.


Dr. Debra


Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.

Feel free to write Dr. Debra with your questions


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Dr. Debra Holland is also a regular contributor to the Wet Noodle Posse Blog.


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