Dear Candid Caregiver: My 79-year-old mom has been widowed for a little over a year. She’d always depended on Dad to help her because her arthritis limited her movement and she uses a walker much of the time.
Now, though, there’s been a complete change in attitude, and she insists that she can take care of everything herself, even physical tasks that are clearly a challenge.
I’m not certain whether she’s trying to prove something or if it has something to do with Dad’s death. Whatever her reasoning, I worry about her. I can’t be with her all the time, so I want to help make her home safer, wherever that home may be.
Unfortunately, my efforts to help her either upgrade her current home so that’s it’s safe for her to stay there — or else move to a senior living complex — are either met with anger or silence.
I keep telling her that I love her and it hurts me to see her risking her life because of a fall that needn’t happen. Her doctor says that her mind is fine so she can make her own choices, though he, too, would like to see her upgrade for safety. How do I break down her defenses?
~ Mom’s Keeper
Dear Mom’s Keeper: You sound like a caring daughter with understandable concerns. If it’s any comfort, parents resisting help is a common problem faced by adult children. For some, the concern is about cognitive problems, which thankfully isn’t an issue here, but each requires a somewhat different approach.
You, along with most adult children, want to see your mother stay safe. Unfortunately, this logical and understandable viewpoint is running head-on into your mother’s also-understandable need to remain independent. So, what can you do?
First, put yourself in your mom’s place. Understand that while she is likely still grieving the loss of her spouse, she may also be enjoying a sense of autonomy as she’s found out that she can do more for herself than she has in the past. It’s even possible that she depended on your dad more than necessary because it made him happy to feel needed.
Consider your method of approach, including your tone of voice. You might be coming across either as condescending or seeming like you’re trying to grab control over her welfare now that your dad isn’t in charge. I’m not saying that you are doing this intentionally, or even doing it at all, but your mother may be reading your words and actions in this way.
For that reason, I’d suggest that you start over. Acknowledge that you’ve been worried because you don’t want her to fall or have other problems due to lack of help from others. Tell her that the last thing you want to do is interfere with her independence, but that you’d like to work with her to make certain that she can stay independent as long as possible. This means preventing falls, eating well, seeing friends, getting some exercise, or even physical therapy if she could benefit from that. Tell her that you want all of this for her and more, and then ask how you can help her achieve this goal.
Give her some time without pressure. Then, during a normal visit, gently suggest of few home improvements like bathroom grab bars and perhaps a raised toilet seat. Offer to help with research. It seems to me that if these improvements haven’t been made earlier, she’d be happy to arrange to have this work done or to ask for your help in setting it up.
At another time, you could suggest some type of alert to help her call for help if she should need to. Again, offer to assist with the research. There’s a lot of technology available that is nonintrusive but effective in sensing when there is a real problem.
Down the road, if the need seems evident you could suggest the use of some in-home care services to help with some tasks.
Talking about assisted living isn’t off the table, either, as long as you only offer it as one of many options for graceful aging. Stress the social aspects of assisted living because this is where many of them excel. If she’s at all curious, you could take her around to some local facilities to see how they function. Make arrangements to have lunch in each place. You might find that you’re impressed with one, but not another.
Through all of this, remember that your mom is not cognitively impaired and she might act defensively if you suggest that she is. Sadly, there’s still a stigma attached to cognitive disorders, so this is an important distinction not only in how you treat her, but possibly for how she thinks you view her.
Be patient and put yourself in your mom’s position. Would you want someone to make you change the way you live? Probably not. You may not get everything that you’d like, but by approaching your mom gradually and with respect for her wishes, you are likely to get more cooperation than you would if you went about it with a heavy hand.
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