Dear Newsweek, I’m in a situation where I’ve found myself kind of lost. My elderly mother is 86 years old and chose to live in Mexico City by herself because she has said she doesn’t like living in the U.S.
She has come to stay with me and my husband of 34 years in Phoenix, Arizona, many times, and she stays for as long as she likes.
My youngest brother lives in Sacramento, California. I believe he is her favorite child and it often feels like she just uses our house as a stopgap between her house and his.
I’ve been through a lot with my mother because it feels like nothing I ever do is good enough, yet my brother can do no wrong. I am exhausted of trying to get her attention and approval, and she always seems to find a way to make me feel bad—even now.
A composite of stock images representing a woman who can’t afford to look after her elderly mother. iStock / Getty Images
Despite this, I have two children and have always brought them up to be loving and respectful towards their grandmother and her ways. My brother has two boys and his wife has been the sister-in-law from hell since day one. She has never really wanted anything to do with the family, including me. My husband has a heart condition and I once asked her if I could name her and my brother as guardian if anything should happen to both of us. Her response? “You can find someone else to do that, we won’t do it.”
Anyway, my mother is not doing well. She has had three falls and almost got caught in a house fire but the neighbors came to the rescue. She needs help and we need to be close to her. My brother has made a lot of excuses as to why he can’t have her in his house. I can bring her to Phoenix to live with me, but I need a little bit of financial help to move her and all her belongings from Mexico. My brother declined to help me or our mother and just told me to do whatever I think is right. Our mother clearly cannot live alone anymore so I need to bring her closer, ideally to his house but she is not welcome. So, here I am. Any ideas?
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When The Elderly Lose Their Quality Of Life, They Question If Life Is Worth Living
Peter Lobl is a clinical psychologist specializing in relationship issues with adults and couples, with a private practice in New York City.
Thanks for your letter. I can see why you’d feel kind of lost: there seems to be no good options for your mother’s care. Your brother says he can’t have her living with him. You would consider having her move in with your family, but your brother won’t split the cost of that move. Even if your mother were to move in with you, the resulting living situation would likely not be easy.
In reading your letter, I thought of a book I read some time ago called Being Mortal. In this book, the author Dr. Atul Gawande shares his discovery that the elderly often have different priorities for their lives than their families do: the elderly want to preserve their quality of life, whereas their families want them to be physically safe. (Disclaimer: I have no affiliation to Dr. Gawande).
You are understandably worried for your mother after her three falls and the house fire. But perhaps you don’t need to figure out your mother’s long-term care on your own. Your mother, despite her 86 years of age, sounds quite independent-minded. After all, not everyone decides to reside abroad on their own. You wrote that she moved to Mexico City because she didn’t like living in the U.S. How does she feel about living in the U.S. now? Has she enjoyed living in Mexico City? Has she made friends there? If so, might there be options for your mother’s long-term care in Mexico City? Options that some of her friends are looking into? Options that your mother would prefer?
If you haven’t already, what about talking with your mother about what she wants for this next chapter in her life? When the elderly lose their quality of life, they sometimes start to question if life is still worth living. Moreover, perhaps your mother already has some ideas about what she wants next for herself. In that case, you could both work together on developing a more detailed plan that integrates quality-of-life issues with your concerns for her safety. I hope you find this helpful.
When A Child Looks After A Parent, A Shift Takes Place
Emma Cullinan is a psychotherapist in private practice in London.
It seems there is a lot of anger, resentment and competitiveness in your family. It’s sad that your mother was so critical of you—it is a horrible start to life.
Even though you felt your brother was the favorite, this does not seem to have made him kind, helpful or generous—perhaps because your unhappy mother imposed her worldview on him. Interestingly, he married someone who is similarly non-empathetic.
When a child looks after a parent, a shift takes place. You will be taking a parental role and she will feel childlike, which may dent her pride and make her lash out.
Your mother’s criticism of you no doubt damages your self-confidence. You deserve so much better and it will be really difficult for you to live with a critic if she moves in. Instead of fighting her or fawning (she will never be pleased but that is not your responsibility or fault), you can say: “I don’t agree,” if she makes a personal attack. Or you can stand outside the nastiness and call out what she is doing: “Now you are insulting me.”
You definitely need help with finances: does your mother own her home and can it be sold or rented; is she on a pension; can you claim government assistance for caregivers?