My husband and I and our two children (aged six and two) recently moved into a bigger house so my mum could come and live with us. She is in her late 70s and was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
We work part-time and share childcare, and agreed to have my mum with us so we could provide a stable home as she was no longer able to live alone. I am keen that, where possible, I am not her carer – we have two assistants who help with personal care, medication and medical appointments.
However, we often end up “caring” for her in terms of cooking, washing, taking her on days out and so on. One thing we struggle with is when we ask her what she needs or would like, and she turns the question round to ask what we need, or how she can help us. In reality, there is little she can do, though we are happy for her to wash up or hang laundry, even if this takes a long time and ends up incomplete.
When she persistently tries to offer help, it becomes a flashpoint for my husband and me, and makes what should be a simple interaction stressful and upsetting.
This behaviour predates the dementia – she was a wonderful and kind single mother who has always gone out of her way to look after others. We want so much to look after her, but it would be so much easier for us if she could accept the help with a simple “thank you!”.
It’s wonderful that you’ve brought your mother to live with you, but you’ve taken on a lot, with work and young children. I wonder if you’ve let yourself acknowledge that?
I used to think looking after older relatives was about the physical impact, but the psychological one is far greater. There’s also a shift between you and your mum, with you taking on a more parental role. And that’s really hard: for both, there’s often an unspoken loss at its core. I suspect this has become a flashpoint not because of what she says, but because of what it triggers in you. I wonder if next time she says it, you could consider how it really makes you feel? Because I do think there’s an unvoiced emotion here.
I contacted Julie Green of Dementia UK: “You’ve done a fantastic thing, but you are a carer for your mum and a mother. When there’s no time for self, that’s when people can get resentful.” She also pointed out something vital, which is that “every one of us has the need for meaningful activities; we need to feel valued, [and] that we are here for a reason.”
Your mum wanting to help is what defines her, and she may be suffering a loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. You may not be able to stop her saying it, but you may be able to handle it differently. Green suggested looking at chores and writing a list so your mum could tick off what she’s done, and you could also give her feedback. This will save not only time in the long run, but frustration, too. Then when your mum asks how she can help, you can say, “You’ve already done this. How about doing something for fun?”. Here Green suggests looking at what your mum likes to do: knitting, singing, anything she usually enjoys.
A vital piece of advice I want to pass on is not to get caught up in what is or isn’t happening, but concentrate on your mum’s feelings. Your mum may forget things, but facts don’t matter here; feelings, however, do. How you make someone feel is crucial.
But how you feel is also really important, so please get support. If things get too much, please don’t feel bad about looking into short-term (a few days’) respite care at a local residential home for your mum.
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