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How to support an elderly carer

Dear Lesley,

My father died 15 years ago and my mother has been with a new partner for the last 10 years, although they don’t live together. In some ways their relationship is quite traditional in that he seems to make most of the decisions, pays for meals and holidays, and she drives him around, cooks etc.

My mother’s partner is gradually becoming more disabled and dependent, which is putting quite a burden on her and getting in the way of her relationship with her own family. She’s quite aware of this but sees it as a “price worth paying” for his companionship.

I’m wondering how I can support her better to balance what she can realistically do, and resist his more (as I see it) unreasonable expectations and demands? So far I have succeeded only in making her defensive.

Any advice appreciated.

Thanks, J.

Lesley says:

Hello J,

What a difficult dilemma – I feel for you. Your question raises the thorny issue of whether our eldercare decisions should be based on what the older person wants or what we think would be best for them. And also what happens when non-family members are involved.

My feeling is that it may help you to tackle this by trying to look at it from different angles. First of all, you say that your mother is not living with this man, nor are they married. But they have been together for 10 years and you describe him as her partner. So presumably that’s how she sees him as well. Do you think the situation would be clearer for you if they were co-habiting or married?

Understanding your feelings

Even though you are obviously an adult yourself is it possible that you have some more child-like reactions towards this man and resent him taking the place of your father? I hope this isn’t an insensitive question, but do you think you would feel the same way if similar demands had been made by your father?

It’s also unclear what your role should be in all of this. Do you have an obligation to help care for the partner or to support your mother in doing so? Does he feel like a step-father to you or does his appearance in your mother’s life at this late stage feel more like an intrusion? Or simply someone who is a friend of your mother’s?

As parents get older, we (their children) often have to move into the uncomfortable position of parenting our parents. This is a very difficult psychological shift. It’s hard to see our parents ageing, changing and having different priorities. It seems you’d like your mother to continue being a ‘proper mother’ to you and to spend more time with her family. That’s completely understandable and might be good for your mother too.

Differentiating between your needs and your mum’s

From your email it seems like you are caught between feeling that she is still her own person, living her own life yet also feeling like you have to start looking out for her and influencing her choices. Is she still capable of making her own decisions, even if you don’t like them? Is she at risk if you don’t intervene?

You mentioned that caring for her partner is becoming a ‘burden’ to your mother but for her, this is a ‘price worth paying’. I wonder if this is the way she expresses it? It might look to you like he isn’t really offering her much in the way of companionship and that time spent with you and other family members would be much more fulfilling. But perhaps being in a partnership is more important to her than you realise and maybe the relationship does fulfill her in ways that aren’t visible to others?

Protecting your parent

However, you also said that the partner is becoming more disabled and dependent. In terms of his ‘expectations and demands’ do you mean that he doesn’t like your mother to go out, for example, when he would be perfectly fine on his own or has her running around after him doing things that he could do himself?

Is he aggressive or unpleasant towards her? Does he take her for granted, phone her at unreasonable times of day? And what about her own health? Is she wearing herself out running errands, taking him to the hospital, cleaning his house or flat? Or is it simply that there are some things he can no longer do, such as driving, shopping or shaving himself where he does need some help and she is the person he turns to? As time goes by, the partner’s need for care will likely increase and I wonder if either of them are planning ahead?

Managing caring responsibilities

Are there others on your side of the family or his who can help care for him? Can he get paid or council carers to help? Your mother might find it easier to ‘resist his demands’ if she knew there were others who could step in and make sure he’s looked after.

You mentioned that your mother gets defensive on this subject. Perhaps she is worried about her own ageing. Perhaps she does have concerns about the situation and doesn’t want to admit it. Or could it be that when you talk to her you give the impression that you know better than she does (even if in fact you do!). This could put her back up and reinforce her feeling that she is an old lady rather than a companion to her partner.

Making time for eldercare conversations

Deep down, what kind of support, do you think she might appreciate? Could you have a heart-to-heart with her where you say as calmly as possible that you’re worried about her partner’s increasing needs and what might happen in the future and is there anything you can do to help? Or, is there another family member or somebody else in her circle she trusts and respects who could talk to her more neutrally about the situation? Can you have a family get together and look for some creative solutions?

Untangling this might be painful and complicated. But hopefully if you can figure out exactly what the problem is that you are trying to solve it may help you to see a way forward. I hope so.

Dr Lesley Trenner is an Ageing Parent specialist with extensive qualifications and experience in life coaching. Lesley provides one-to-one help for people who are struggling to balance work and care, or cope with mid-life, family and career challenges. Sessions are available face-to-face (London) or on the phone. Email Lesley or call 07919 880 250 for a free introductory chat.

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