"I Love My Mother, But I Don't Like Her"

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Recently a caregiver named Karen told me she felt obligated to care for her cranky elderly mother (whom she loved but never really liked), because she suspected mild dementia and worried about leaving her alone. I told her how important it is to have her mother evaluated by a dementia specialist immediately because with early diagnosis and treatment the dementia can be masked/slowed down in most people.

By keeping her mom in the early and more cognitively aware stage longer, Karen's caregiving journey will be much less stressful than if she waits and the dementia and behaviors get worse. Since many people with dementia are greatly helped with an anti-depressant, and bad moods are often smoothed out, I suggested she discuss that with the doctor as well.

I loved my own challenging elderly father, but I didn't like him as he was so hard to care for with his lifelong nasty temper, narrow-mindedness and angry outbursts. He had never used the "F" word his whole life (my mother would have slapped him silly), but when I took care of him and he got mad, suddenly it was every other word to me. I'd cry and beg him to stop berating me, just hating him for treating me so badly.

I wish I had been able to reach this consciousness sooner, but it was months into my caregiving journey before I became so stressed out that I just had to refuse to let anything my father said or did upset me. When I had on this "Emotional Shield" and I was able to just go-with-the-flow, everything bounced right off me.

"Yesss, Dad, I know I'm a f-ing b-- and whore and I've never done anything to help you, but if you take a shower I'll make you a special dinner and dessert tonight." He'd swear a blue streak at me as he shuffled into the shower and I could still hear him swearing to himself in there as I prepared his favorite dinner! You had to just laugh.

Like my father, Karen said her mother's negative behavior patterns were deeply ingrained because her family enabled her for years to be able to behave badly without consequences (very common). We didn't know to set boundaries with my father either, so when he pounded the kitchen table ("BOOM") and yelled obscenities about something, instead of telling him we would not tolerate that behavior and getting up and leaving the room, we cowered and walked on eggshells all the time trying not to upset him.

When a person like this becomes elderly and their warped personality gets compounded with (as I call it) "a dash of dementia", those ingrained behaviors still surface intermittently, but now over things that are more illogical, irrational and irritating than ever before. It's crazy-making for a family caregiver, as some days their elder acts normal (at the doctor's for sure), but then on other days at home when no one is around… yikes! I wish I'd thought to discretely turn on a little tape recorder, which would have helped me get help from the doctors much sooner.

Tips for Caring for a Difficult Elderly Parent

Oftentimes caregivers need to be reminded to put their own health first, so they remain healthy to care for their loved ones. And family and friends of caregivers coping with difficult elders need to make sure the caregiver takes good care, as the risk to their health is even greater. I was foolish and didn't take care of myself when I was caring for my parents--and was stunned when I developed invasive breast cancer. I gave my parents five more years of life in their eighties--and it has cost me several years of my…"middle-age!"

I also advise caregivers to get into a support group as soon as they start their caregiving journey, as solutions start to present themselves around others going through similar situations, and it is comforting to know that your conflicting emotions are normal. Support groups are easily found by calling a senior center, adult day care, and hospitals often have caregiver support groups targeted to specific illnesses.

If you are a caregiver, particularly of a challenging elder who you don't really like, or of a parent who didn't care for you as a child, focus on being proud of stepping up and doing the right thing, even though it is so hard. And always remember: You are teaching your children how they will probably take care of you someday. So plan for good Karma!

Jacqueline Marcell is a former television executive who was so compelled by caring for her elderly parents (both with early Alzheimer's not diagnosed for over a year) she wrote "Elder Rage." She is also an international speaker on elder care and host of the popular Internet radio program "Coping With Caregiving."

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496 Comments

I don't throw the word 'love' around lightly. What my mother has done to me all my life has, I think, beaten the love right out of me. But since I don't choose to carry around any negative feelings about her that would short circuit my own happiness, I have chosen to 'love her' as I love my fellow man. I will treat her with the respect due another member of the human race and due to my own compass internally, I won't do anything to mistreat her. When you feel like you need space from your mother, realize that by giving yourself that you are better able to provide care or empathy for her. There is a phrase used in therapy that goes something like 'you are shoulding all over yourself'. I should like my mother. I should not want to get away from her. I should be more patient. On and on. It's down time. Like an empty pitcher drained of its contents, if you do not refill yourself, you will have nothing to pour back out.
It's another day. I think of how the last 10% of my life has been going through the same routine each day. Again today I am worried about that dirty, dirty bedroom of my mother's. She covers it with blankets so the cold air can't blow through the "cracks in the floor." She has old shoes and clothes stuffed about. She won't get rid of them, even though she can't wear them. It's impossible to clean, but I know I really should try. How did it ever come down to this?

My mother's life is really the life of a zombie. There is really no life left in her. She walks back and forth to the bathroom all day. She does cook her own breakfast right now and does a bit of laundry. But that is all. And I know that doctors and my care are the only things keeping her alive. I wonder how it has ever come down to this.

As families and as society we really do need to work to solve the problem of elder care. We can't shorten lives, but we also can't expect people in the future to continue doing what we are doing. Traditionally families have taken care of their elders, but traditionally elders haven't needed extensive care for 10-20 years. Modern medicine has created a huge problem that we're not prepared to handle. When you're in the middle of it, you wonder why in the world you're donating your life to someone so they can walk back and forth to the bathroom all day. And you are really stuck because they might fall. But then you have to wonder, so what if they fall? Goodness, medications and we are the only things propping them up. It just makes no sense at all.

And then they're mean to us?? If someone did for me a small fraction of what we do for our parent, I would never be able to say thank you enough.
Momsgirl - my experience is more like judds though I never had a time of closeness to my mother. She is mentally ill. No one had to tell me that, I had it figured out before I went to grade school. She is verbally and emotionally, and occasionally physically abusive. She is self centered, negative, manipulative and very critical. She has finally developed vascular dementia in the past few years. I can't say that it has made her worse, but different in some ways. I dislike a lot of my mother's behaviours, though, despite everything I still do care for her, and will continue to help her as I can.