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
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
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
Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed
psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and communication
Feel free to
write Dr. Debra with your questions.
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