My mom.
May 16, 2011 7:25 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with my mother's lack of interest/active sabotaging of her own health?

My mother, in her mid 60s, has had a long history of neglecting her health. She drinks a bit much, and that has affected our relationship somewhat significantly I think. My father and mother have a pretty strong relationship and rely on each other quite a bit, but my father is extremely compliant and active in his medical care.

My mom, on the other hand, has maybe been to the doctor 3x in the last decade. She never follows up with any appointment or recomendation. She does not take any medications. I really don't know if she knows if she has high blood pressure, whether she has had a pap smear in the last decade or basically anything.

If I ask my mother about it, she starts speaking quickly, saying "I'll go see the doctor" then "I don't want to talk about it" then "leave me alone". I can't say that I'm perfect in communicating with her, which makes me really sad. But she is very, very difficult to talk to about anything like this, quickly changes the subject and usually says "I have to go" and hangs up the phone. This is sort of pattern with our communication in general.

Anyway, I'm not perfect in my relations with her, but would really like to have better communication with her. But I'm not sure where to begin or if there's really a point in trying. I know she loves me very much and is constanly thinking of me, but she also is really good at saying exactly the wrong thing and sometimes I think it's intentional sabotaging of our relationship in the same way that I think she intentionally seems to be sabotaging her health.

Doesn't help that I'm a health professional.

Anyway, my father told me that through a roundabout turn of events he found out that my mom has found blood in her urine recently. She told him that she will go to the doctor, but in truth, she doesn't even have a doctor, and I'm not sure she will. I'm not sure she won't say that she went to the doctor even if she hasn't.

I wonder sometimes if my mother is actively trying to have an early death because her mother had terrible alzheimers and she's trying to avoid that fate. She actively avoids taking walks, exercise and sort of any health promotion activity.

I'm not even sure what my question is. Obviously I'm worried about my mom (who I love, by the way, even though I find our relationship extremely complicated). I just was wondering if anyone has any words of wisdom for dealing with a parent with no real chronic mental issue but is extremely unwise about her own health?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
How concerned is your dad about this? I wonder if he would be willing to take the initiative in going with her to the doctor, making sure she follows up, etc. If he takes care of his health, he must see the value in it, and she may be more willing to listen to him. Maybe he could enlist friends of hers to help (though this would be tricky without telling them the symptom in question)?
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 7:39 PM on May 16, 2011

This is my life right now. I have a father who drinks more than "a bit much" and whose last wife left him a year or so ago and is now sort of a mess of minor and possibly major ailments. And he also almost refuses to take care of himself while at the same time talking like he's taking care of himself. Part of his problem new is balance, so he'll fall and then wind up with cuts or whatever that he won't really take care of. He'll actually go to the doctor but I don't think he tells them the truth and he expects them to fix his problems--which are more likely the result of chronic alcoholism than anything medicine can do for him--and sort of complains when they don't.

In his world he's the only smart man surrounded by people who are barely competent (including me) and at the same time has no explanation for why he won't even do the bare minimum to keep himself in better shape [we're talking things like: eating dinner, walking out to get the mail, climbing stairs once in a while] and talking to him is a combination of pep talking and realizing that everything from the last pep talk didn't happen. It's not even like we're having a real conversation, he'll say he will do things and then won't. And when we talk about it, he just sort of ... says nothing.

So I've shifted my approach some. I don't talk to him about his health stuff and I don't suffer his weird lying and anxiety about his health stuff. This, of course, limits our conversations, but so does the fact that he starts drinking at 5 pm every night [this is not an exaggeration, this is a fact] and I won't stay around him while he's drinking. I've never had what I'd consider a real relationship with him. At the same time, he has qualities that I admire, qualities that I enjoy and qualities that I see in myself and no one else.

At some level one of the sad things about alcoholics--and I have no idea if this is what you are alluding to about your mom or not--is that they sort of take everyone down with them. They live in a fantasy world where anxiety management is dealt with by drinking and avoidance and not by meeting problems head on. As they get older and health problems become more serious, this often can mean more drinking and not less. It sucks, but it's not me. I can have sympathy for my father without sharing his burden which is what I try to do. I'm sorry that he's not handling things, but if I'm honest with myself he never really handled things. It hurts to see people you care about in a destructive cycle, but it's their life to screw up and, as hard as it is to sort of feel at a real level, it's not about you. I found some useful information in some of the Al-Anon literature about how kids of alcoholics can be overachievers and hyper-fixers and some of the stuff was eerily close to some of my own non-alcohol-related (or so I thought) problems. If you haven't checked out some of their stuff, it might help you work at letting some of this go. This is just my perspective, not saying "Do this!" but some of what's to come is going to be you making your peace with this, since it's unlikely your mother is going to change.
posted by jessamyn at 7:46 PM on May 16, 2011 [12 favorites]

My mom was just like your mom. Ignored her health, refused to talk about it, drank a bit too much wine, ate too much, never exercised.

My mom is dead. She died last December at age 68. I begged. I reasoned. I yelled. I cried. And none of it made any difference. I've reconciled with the fact that she chose her path to an early grave over life, over me, over my dad. I love her and I miss her so much, but I had no control over her choices. She didn't want to change or couldn't change and it killed her.

Tell your mom what you want to tell her and that you're worried, but be prepared to have her ignore you. Take this time to talk to her and ask her the things you never thought you'd need to ask this early - her recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing, where she keeps her important papers, what she wants in terms of a service when she's gone and whether she wants to be buried or cremated, go through old family photos and find out who all those people you don't recognize are, fix your relationship with her, tell her you love her. In short, live like you won't have her around tomorrow and make the most of the time you have.
posted by cecic at 8:29 PM on May 16, 2011 [11 favorites]

I get the impression that you have raised this subject more than once. It appears that she just doesn't want to talk about it. While you have every right to be concerned about her health, you need to consider that prying into her health is just that...prying. As a health care professional, you are familiar with HIPPA. This applies to her as well as any other person you might meet in a health care setting.

I am sure that you would be upset if she kept asking you about your personal health decisions and second-guessed her. Add to this the fact that she still sees you as her "little baby" no matter how old and knowledgeable you have become.

As Jessamyn says, you need to make your peace with this, since it is unlikely that your mother will change. In addition, if you can make your peace, your life with her (how ever long that may last) will be far more rewarding for both of you. It appears that this is exactly what your father has done.
posted by Old Geezer at 8:37 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hate to just add on to the "you can't do anything but make peace with it" pile, because I know how unsatisfying it is, but if someone doesn't want to take care of their health you can't make them. My father was that way and died a few years ago -- I'm 27 now -- and my mom is avoidant about her own health issues as well. If you've made it clear that you're seriously concerned and it didn't jolt them into action, continuing to stress about it won't change their mind.

What I can say that may help you make peace with it is this: for a long time, I worried because I had the odd subconscious idea that it would somehow make things worse, or maybe be immoral, to stop worrying. I had to worry, especially since my parent wasn't worrying enough to actually do something about the problem; someone had to be thinking about it, someone had to have their eye on it, or else there really would be no hope. Something bad might happen, and it could conceivably be because I didn't care about them enough to keep trying.

That idea is an illusion. Whatever is going to happen will happen whether you worry about it or not. Rarely will the concern of other people spur someone to do what they cannot do for himself. The exceptions to this usually reveal themselves in the beginning -- i.e. you express sincere concern and they're startled enough to change without much extra prodding -- or else only when things hit rock bottom, either because they can't delude themselves anymore, or the guilt finally overwhelms them, or they get scared enough for themselves.

The sad fact is that a lot of people hit rock bottom and break right through. They don't have it in them to do otherwise, no matter how much other people care about them. At any point, with any person, all you can do is make clear that you love them and that you're concerned. Then you simply wait and be there for them. They will either change when they're going to change, or (usually) not.

Continuing to worry just ruins your life in parallel with their ruining their own life, with no added benefit. You can't control whether their life sucks or not, but you can control whether your own life sucks disproportionately as a result. Remember that your life is valuable too, and it's just as big a tragedy for you to excessively whittle away potentially happy moments of your own life to make room for extra sorrow that won't accomplish anything; you will worry until your mom dies. Seriously let that sink in. You only have the power to save your own life; your mom could potentially live another fifteen years that you spend miserable and worried. That is awful.

Trust me, I know: my father was expected to live only a few years when I was 11 or so, all over health problems he had control over -- and it ended up being more than ten years, and my mother and I were a wreck the whole time. Being a wreck changed nothing, absolutely nothing, except that we were more miserable than we had to be. I managed to make peace with my dad's fatalism and refusal to take care of himself a few years before he died, and I'm glad for it; my last memories of my father are happy ones for me, because I was able to accept that I would probably not see him many more times and appreciate what I had left. I was also able to really feel happy since the first time in... honestly, maybe ever, given how young I was when his health problems started, and how rocky things were even before that. I don't think my mom was ever able to make peace with it. Their final years together were fraught and contentious and stressful -- moreso, I think, than they needed to be; some degree is inevitable -- and he died all the same.

The reality of any situation is this: there are options that will make you happier, and options that will make you unhappy, but rarely is there an option that will be exactly what you want, especially if it relies on other people doing what you want. Too often, people will pursue exactly what they want anyway and wallow in unhappiness when it doesn't work. Worrying about someone who won't take care of herself is an example of this: what you really want is for her to take care of herself, so it's easy to fall into a trap where you won't allow yourself to be happy with anything short of this. But in reality, that's probably not possible. If you want to be happy, you have to accept she's probably not going to take care of herself and she'll probably die because of it and there's nothing you or anyone else can do about it. I know it's awful and it's really horrible to work through and everything in you wants to scream that's not true and it's awful to tell yourself to feel okay about someone dying, but it is true and it is okay and there is no alternative except to be miserable because reality isn't conforming to your wishes. There could be some miracle change of heart, sure, but it will happen regardless of whether you worry, and in practice, letting yourself rely on that possibility means deluding yourself or worrying more. You ultimately have to let yourself be okay with the worst case scenario. If you express love and concern and give advice when solicited -- and inevitably, sometimes when unsolicited -- then you've done your best and it's out of your hands.

Really sorry you're having to go through this, I know it sucks.
posted by Nattie at 4:47 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wonder sometimes if my mother is actively trying to have an early death because her mother had terrible alzheimers and she's trying to avoid that fate. She actively avoids taking walks, exercise and sort of any health promotion activity.

She probably has some really bad associations with dealing with this stuff and goes into panic-dislike-AVOID mode. Which is honestly not uncommon, sometimes they're hard topics.

But... she's an adult. Who probably still thinks of you as a kid. Not much to work with there. Do you live close to your parents? Can you drop by with a precooked meal once a week "because you're my parents and I want to show how much I appreciate you"? Sign them up for fruit-of-the-month as a gift? Take your mom out to do something cool which happens to involve a little walking on a regular basis (let's go to the museum!)?
posted by anaelith at 6:24 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I could have written this post three years ago. Both my dad and I broached the subject in a variety of different ways with my mom - we were straightforward, we were gentle, we tried guilt trips. Honestly, what turned my mom around on this issue? A scare that landed her in the hospital for ten days. It ended up being something rare but ultimately treatable, but it took them the better part of a week to rule out a couple kinds of cancer. That was a lot of time for my mom to sit in the hotel bed and wonder what the hell was going on in her body, and if she could have prevented it. In the couple years since that episode, she's been a completely different person with regard to taking ownership of and responsibility for her own health and medical care.

The thing is, we didn't make her see the light. Nothing we said made a difference. The only thing that made the difference was staring down the barrel of a really scary thing, alone.

I'm not saying you can't keep doing what you're doing - and there are some additional good ideas here, like dropping by to cook dinner if you're nearby, or going on walks with her, or letting her know that you're willing and open to help her find any doctors or therapists she might need - but do what you can to realize and make peace with the fact that you have no control over this situation. You can hope for a sudden moment of clarity, but understand that you are neither responsible for nor capable of making that happen for her. Love her while she's here and be kind to yourself for doing the best you can in a difficult situation.
posted by superfluousm at 7:47 AM on May 17, 2011

Rather, the hospital bed.
posted by superfluousm at 7:51 AM on May 17, 2011

Can you talk to her about why she doesn't like doctors? I have panic attacks in doctor's offices no matter how minor the reason I'm there. I was worried I had something serious recently and avoided going because I thought I might be told I'd have to have surgery. I can totally see her being scared of the unknown, and avoiding going so she doesn't have to deal with potentially painful/threatening tests and treatments.

Really, really listen to her. This is a person who's scared, not just willful or neglectful or lazy (although maybe some of those too). Don't argue with her, don't try to convince her of anything, just really listen to her fears, and reassure her that you will be there through anything. Don't talk to her like a child, but in your mind picture yourself with a scared 3 year old. You know the kid's fears are irrational, but all you want to do is comfort that kid.

I'd start off with "I know going to the doctor is scary.. is there anything I can do to help make it less scary?"
posted by desjardins at 8:15 AM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Being a wreck changed nothing, absolutely nothing, except that we were more miserable than we had to be.

This. I would assume nothing you do will change her. She's an adult and her own person, even if she doesn't act like it.

Perversely, often the people closest to you are the ones least able to tell you what you need to know- you just can't hear it from them. You are not the person who can make her see the light.

(Maybe someone else will, and then you'll be all "Gawd, Mom! I've been saying that for YEARS! And one random comment from the bus driver is what convinces you?!)

For myself, I do my best to have a good time with my mom and leave the other stuff alone. The train wreck is inevitable (Probably. I've been wrong before.) and to the best of my ability, I'd like my focus to be on all the ways my mom is cool, and not on all the ways she's screwing up. Turns out, she's pretty awesome in a lot of ways :)
posted by small_ruminant at 10:36 AM on May 17, 2011

As smarter people than I have said, she's an adult and can and will make her own decisions.

Since you have issues communicating verbally with your mother, write her a letter; you can edit and re-write until it's right. Mail it to her and let it go.
posted by deborah at 3:33 PM on May 17, 2011

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