Any suggestions for dealing with the "self-appointed martyr" in our family?

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My beloved aunt and uncle (aged 90 and 92) are more like adoptive parents to both my husband and to me. They both have multiple very serious medical conditions and are both rapidly declining in their physical health. My uncle is also severely clinically depressed (I was a licensed mental health professional for 20+ years so I recognize all the symptoms.) They are still at home and refuse to have any paid help to come into their home, even though they could easily afford it. They are very comfortable financially. I try to do all that I can to be supportive of them but I live over 80 miles away and work full-time outside the home. The problem is that their son (in his late 60's) is endangering his own health by trying to do everything for them that they need. He doesn't live with them, but gets to their house at 5:30 a.m. three times per week to drive his mother to dialysis then picks her up and brings her home a few hours later. He does their grocery shopping and much of their cooking and cleaning (what gets done). He tries to take care of all of their car maintenance and home maintenance which is extensive. In addition to the 3 x a week dialysis treatments, the aunt and uncle both have frequent doctor appointments and either the son or the son's wife takes them to ALL of the appointments. My aunt and uncle are both appropriate for hospice care, but they refuse to consider it. They are both stubbornly determined to stay in their own home as long as they live (which they seem to think will be forever) and to depend on their son for all their needs. I do not think it is good for them to be staying in their home with no other adult. They are both very frail and fragile. I am very concerned for their safety and well-being, as well as for the son's, but all three (as well as their daughter) seem to think it is realistic for this arrangement to go on indefinitely. Several years ago my uncle had a serious car accident due to his age-related impairments, but he just replaced his totally demolished car and still drives. The son does not have the fortitude to take his dad's car keys away. He is totally dominated and manipulated by his parents and seems to be determined to ruin his own health to be the dutiful son. I have tactfully expressed my concerns to all of them and have essentially been told by all of them,to "Back off..." So I just do what I can to be supportive both emotionally and in practical ways - I go once or twice a month to visit and cook some of their favorite foods and clean the kitchen, which is always very much needing to be cleaned. I'm just very afraid that the son will eventually develop some serious stress-related illness and/or that there will be some serious crisis that will be exacerbated by their living alone...I say the Serenity Prayer a lot. Any other suggestions?

Answers 1 to 10 of 11
Wow. How hard for you to love them and want the best for them and have no real say in how things are handled. The Serenity Prayer should help, especially if you can identify what you can change and what you can't.

Continue what you are doing. Show your love in tangible ways. Try not to be critical of their choices.

If your cousin were to post on here and ask what he should do, I'm sure many of us would tell him to get some paid help for his parents and take more time for himself and his wife and family. But he hasn't posted here, and he hasn't asked you. So ........ keep repeating that serenity prayer like a mantra!

Minding your own beeswax is virtually impossible when people you care about unravel before your eyes. You've voiced your concerns, cooked/cleaned, and tried to be emotionally supportive.

Your aunt / uncle have made a decision to spend the rest of their days at home. Your cousin, apparently on self-destruct mode, intrigues me. What's his motive?
You have a common situation here. The very elderly fighting to keep things as they always have been and the child who for whatever reason feels obligated to see that things are the way the parents want them. Even at the risk of his own health. Something will eventually give, it always does.

What bothers me most is the Uncle driving. He could kill and innocent person. Then they drag someone else into their drama. I would at least really try to see that the Uncle stops driving before he does hurt someone.
Grace, your aunt and uncle's son has his own demons to deal with, and that's why he's being sub-servant to his folks. There is NO way he's going to be able to stand up to them since he's probably been doing this all his life, so don't expect that. There's a family dynamic there that you're either unaware of or maybe you've just gotten used to 'it' like he has. You can talk and bang your head against the wall all you want, but just 'telling' the son what to do isn't working. Gotta think outside the box I guess. Don't know what that looks like for you though. Maybe it's as simple as joining forces with the son and supporting him when and if he ever does get fed up. Good luck.
What I see in your adult cousin is what is sorely lacking nowadays - duty, respect, and self-reliance. Since u r 80 miles away, it is almost impossible for you to be there to take your Aunt and Uncle to their many appointments. I understand that you are only thinking of all of them - their health and mental well-being. I know u feel sorry for your cousin and all that he is doing, but there are many people who do not like to "impose" (that's how they see it) on others to do things for them. I am a lot like that - I would have to be in dire straits to allow someone else to do what I believe is my responsibility. At some point, your cousin will burn out from over-work and loss of sleep and at that time, he will ask for asstance from someone or some organization. Until then, your going over occasionally to cook and clean is a very loving and supportive gesture. U are a compassionate and kind person, and I hope that everything turns out well for everyone.
Have you spoken to your cousin directly about your concerns? "George, I'm so worried about you. I know you are worried about your Dad driving; maybe e could get the doctor to suggest he stop. And if you are worried that that puts you on the hook for MORE, rather than LESS time helping them, maybe we can find a service to do the grocery shopping."

Another suggestion: If you can find ways to support him, in a public way, that might be useful. For example, share your concerns with your aunt and uncle: "It would be more fair to George if you would get someone else to shop for the groceries; he is getting older and if he wears out, you will be up a creek. How can we help George help you better?" "I'm worried that you might have an accident and hurt someone else. As a mental health pro, I've seen people live with the guilt of causing an injury like that, and I don't want that for you."

Finally, maybe they can all hear that if they get a service involved, even on a once-every-other-week basis, so they establish a relationship now, there will be someone to call if "george" is sick (don't wanna get the parents sick too), so the parents still get some help when they need it.

It doesn't sound like George is a martyr -- just that he got sucked into a routine he can't get out of without help. That's my take, anyway.

I hope this helps. Good luck. They are ALL lucky to have you.
Top Answer
Dear Grace,
This son of theirs is no martyr. He is doing for his parents what they need done for them, probably because no one else is going to do it. He has the option of turning his back on them and seeing if they pay for the help they need (since they can afford it) or die for its lack. He doesn't want to carry the guilt that would come under option #2, so he is caring for his dying parents, building positive memories with them and escorting them to their transition. I did the same for my mother-in-law for ten years until she died in our family room, and I'm glad I did. Personally, I applaud his decision, and believe it will reward him for lifetimes to come. Since you are only in a position to watch, watch and applaud, or watch and criticize, please consider the serenity prayer and choose option #2. If you walked a mile in his shoes, you would see the difference between what he's doing and martyrdom. Good Luck. God Bless You.
This reminds me of a friend of mine who dedicated his life to doing things for other people. He never expected anything back from them. He was just a good man. He helped people, even when his cancer made him very ill. I wondered how he kept up, but he said he loved doing it, and it gave him a reason to live. He was an angel. Unfortunately, the cancer won last year, so he is no longer with us.

There are good, selfless people out there who do things out of love for others. There may be no other reason other than the parents need help and he wants to be there for them. I'm sure he gets tired, but he'll be the judge of how much he can do. I would just tell him that I'm glad he is there and to let me know when he needs help.
Thanks to everyone who has responded. Please believe me, I am not criticizing my cousin. I am just concerned for his well-being and for the well-being on my aunt and uncle if he "crashes and burns." Yes, I have spoken to him directly (as gently and tactfully as possible, expressing my concern for him) and I have spoken to my aunt and uncle along these lines: "There are certain things only George can do for you, because he is your only son. However, there are other things that others could do so that we save George for those things that only he can do and so that he doesn't get sick/worn out/burned out/exhausted/etc." For instance, we could arrange to have a licensed/bonded/insured/properly screened person from a local caregiver agency come and take my aunt to her dialysis treatment at 5:30 a.m. and George could come back at 10:00 a.m. and pick her up and take her home. I checked into it, found an excellent, reputable local agency and a lovely lady from the agency came to their home and spoke with my aunt and uncle about their services. Paying someone to do this once, twice, or three times each week would be very affordable and would take a load off George. Also, as someone suggested, it would establish a relationship NOW with some good folks at the caregiving agency who could very likely be needed in the (near?) future if there is any sudden crisis or significant decline for either of them. But George insists that he be the one to take her to the treatment AND bring her home. In fact, according to the aunt, he said to her, "Mother, don't let anyone tell you that I don't want to take you to dialysis. I will take you to your dialysis treatments for the rest of your life...." If that's not martyrdom, I don't know what is. Yes, he is a good, selfless person and he is "dutiful, respectful, and self-reliant" and I appreciate all of that about him. I also think he is a "falling down codependent" (similar to being a falling down drunk only without the alcohol). It takes one to know one, I'm a recovering falling-down codependent myself. Being in recovery from codependency, I now no longer believe that it is my duty to single-handedly save the world (as I once believed) - or even that it is my duty to single-handedly save everyone within a radius of 500 miles, or even that it is my duty to single-handedly save everyone in my immediate family. Also, I know I have limitations and I am willing to admit those and to ask for and receive help when I need it. I try to remember that perhaps George has not had the opportunities that I have had to learn about healthy boundaries and change self-defeating behaviors (I used to have martyrdom and victimhood down to a fine art - I was taught by pros). I try NOT to judge, but I can't help but be concerned. I truly love and support and appreciate all three (the aunt, uncle, and cousin) PLUS the other cousin (their daughter) who lives in another state WITHOUT CONDITION. However, the last time I left phone messages for the two cousins (several months ago) neither of them returned my calls. This is hurtful and rather passive-aggressive. I think it is their indirect way of saying "back off," so I have not left any more messages for them asking for a return call or for anything else. I just do what I can when I can for my aunt and uncle, hold them all in prayer, and trust a Power much greater than I am that we are all in God's care. I feel somewhat scolded and criticized by some of the remarks that were made here, but I also feel supported by others, so it all balances out, I guess. Blessings to all, G~
I agree with JonathninOregon . He is a wonderful son and they are lucky parents who obviously brought up a great son. I too say stay out of it, they are in great hands and if the son needs help, and he will, he can deal with it, after all its his parents. My siblings live less than 20 miles away and do not know, nor will they ever know, how hard I work day in and day out for my mother, I also have been called a martyr, for what? How dare they ever tell me what to do when I am the fulltime caregiver and they rarely see her ! Does that make them feel better as if they are helping with suggestions because they dont help , they only "visit." You bringing over a few meals is a needle in he haystack in comparison to what their son does on a daily basis, of course he wants you to stay out of it, you dont understand what its like if you dont do it.
Someone has to step up the plate in each family and those who do are the decision makers, no one else, as long as the person is loved and well taken care of, thats what matters. Your Aunt and Uncle want to stay in their own home you mention, of course they do and they should stay there forever. They may accept help someday but why not, I sure wouldnt want to move out of my home, would anyone else? Thats completely normal and comforting for them, let them be, continue to love and visit them, and bite your tongue, this will be the best route for all. Good luck.

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