Question: How to change the dynamics in your home? My mom has dementia/Alzheimer’s but still can plot and fuss when it’s not what she wants. She still has the upper hand in all things. She is used to having her way and will make me regret not doing what she wants. My mom has been sick all my life, so I have always been a caregiver. But I have a family too, and it’s hard to always do things her way. I am 56 and would like to be able to get out now and then. I am still the child in this relationship.
Dr. Amy: What a caring and generous daughter you are, taking care of your mother for so many years without help. I salute your selflessness. You have raised two separate issues, so I will speak to each in turn. The first is your need for a little time off. One of the hardest things about making care plans for a loved one is that decisions affect not just the person who needs care but the entire family, including the caregiver. Often, while trying to provide excellent care for one family member, caregivers work very long hours. They have to juggle many different responsibilities, and may neglect their own well being.
One thing I often suggest is that you consider how caregiving will affect the entire family– not just the aging family member. That includes you. Decisions that appear to be good for your mom but are not so good for you and other members of the family almost always end up being bad decisions for everyone. You may burn out. Others may feel resentful. How can you balance the needs of everyone—including yourself? One way is to write down the names of ALL of the people who will be affected by a decision. Then under each person’s name, list the ways each person might be affected. If the picture doesn’t look good, try other options. Repeat the exercise until you reach a decision that works best. This is not about making perfect decisions. It’s about making the best decision for the whole family in a difficult situation.
About your second issue: feeling like you are still the child in the relationship is very common among adult children, if that makes you feel any better. You are not alone! Some parents are able to see that their kids have grown up and become competent adults. And they treat them like adults. Other parents always treat their children as children—even when the children are seniors themselves. This can lead to frustration. In some cases, adults feel like a child when they are with their parents—no matter how their parents treat them. They can be take-charge go-getters at work and then become quiet and passive when they are with their parents. If this is the case with you, I encourage you to get help sorting this out. You need to find a way to step into your role as an adult when you are with your mother. How you feel in your relationship will affect how you behave. You might want to ask yourself, “If I felt like an adult in this relationship, would I behave differently? In what ways?”
If, on the other hand, you feel like an adult but your mother treats you like a child, that’s different. If your mother were not suffering from Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, I’d encourage you to talk to her about how you feel. You could say simply and without anger, “Mom, you are treating me like a child.” I would also encourage you to remember that it’s not about you, and to try to not take it personally.
But since your mother does have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, this advice does not apply to you. Instead, it’s important to understand that things will change now that your mother has dementia. Her brain is changing. So is her ability to understand the world and what you say to her. Just because your relationship has been one way in the past does not mean it has to be or will be this way in the future. I encourage you to check out resources developed by Home Instead Senior Care at homeinstead.com. Just click on the Alzheimer's disease tab at the top of the page. They have also developed helpforalzheimersfamilies.com. Both are excellent resources and will give you some great advice on how to cope.
I also think you might benefit from joining a support group, so that you can talk to people regularly about what’s going on and hear how other people are coping. Now that your mother has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, it’s going to be almost impossible to change the family dynamic. Instead of trying to change your relationship with her, I encourage you to focus on what you have the power to change. I send you courage and strength.
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