Ill Apron Strings
July 13, 2011 9:37 AM   Subscribe

My mother doesn't take of her health at all, she ignores everyone's health advice when she has problems, and it's making me feel guilty and frustrated for not trying hard enough and not being able to support her.

Our parents are asian immigrants to the UK who had us kids here. Her teeth are coming loose but she refuses to see a dentist, her back is always hurting but she refuses to buy a mattress to replace the broken one. My siblings and I have tried for years to get her to take better care of herself by reason and it's gotten us no where. There have been points when we've forced her to go to doctors and dentists appointments we've booked for her and I've threatened to buy her the mattress that she won't. Here in England the immediate family is all she has so it seems like her idea of love is sacrifice and martyrdom; self abnegation is her identity and also one of the few ways she feels she can 'help' us, but it just makes everyone feel shit. She refuses to spend money on anything and represses all her problems. So we can't tell when a problem is serious, chronic, etc. Our dad is a self absorbed narcissist who doesn't really give a crap. What do you do.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Buy her a new mattress. Drag her to the dentist and get the siblings to pool together and pay for it. If she complains, tell her the one thing you want most from her is for her to look after herself properly and live a long healthy life, because you want her to be there and know her grandchildren. If she is going to refuse to help herself, then you are going to look after her and not take no for an answer. Threats don't work? then act on them.

It is better to honor your parents by doing for them what they will not/cannot do for themselves, than to let them "save face" and let their conditions worsen when it can be prevented.
posted by lizbunny at 9:47 AM on July 13, 2011 [9 favorites]

If you didn't live in the UK and your dad wasn't a narcissist, I'd think you were my sister.

I hear you about your mom having a big identity stake in being a martyr. There isn't anything short of a whole lot of therapy that can help with the general attitude, and it's doubtful if she sees anything wrong with living her life as a walking moan. The cultural emphasis on self-denial and sacrifice goes too deep. And I know my mom wouldn't understand at all if it were explained to her that her attitude drives her family away—I know this, because we've tried. To her, we were just bewilderingly unfilial, disrespectful daughters because we wouldn't hold up our end of the cultural bargain (parents never do anything for themselves and shake it in your face all the time, children are grateful and endlessly sympathetic, I guess?).

You need to decide how invested you want to be—that is, how much you want to play along. This may intersect with how much you want your mom to take care of herself, versus how much you're willing to take care of her. It's okay if your expectations are different from hers, but you need to make your peace with whatever you decide.

Some scattered thoughts:

- Can/does your mom get around by herself? Does she see you often? Any chance she's working the "forced" appointements etc. as time/attention on her from her kids?
- Would she respond to "if you don't pay a little money to get checked up now, it may cost a LOT MORE later"?
- Does she do any activity stuff? Is there anything she would like to do but doesn't know how to get started?
- Ditto exercise.
- Does she have the cultural/linguistic support network she needs to not be depressed/mopey? My mom gets a lot worse about her "woe is me" stuff when she feels isolated.
- Is there another third party who can keep an eye on your mom and tell you the truth about what's going on? Any friends, or a religious figure, or anything like that?
- How bad are things? Time for a case worker (or the UK equivalent?)
posted by peachfuzz at 9:50 AM on July 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think the best route is to emphasize that the way she can best help you, make your lives better, and make you stop worrying is to take care of herself. Insist on it, especially if she enjoys being near you or spending time with you.

It's an extreme case, but my grandparents had the same sort of mentality, not so much on the self-sacrifice end of things, but more on the scared of doctors, only go as a last resort mentality. My grandfather has no teeth and can't take care of himself that well now that my grandmother is gone. She didn't seek out treatment for "stomach pains" until it was probably too late to effectively treat cancer, and ended up being incredibly senile or lapsed into full-blown Alzheimers upon her return from surgery.

I really believe that if they'd sought treatment, not just when they had an ache they decided not to ask about, but actual preventative care, that they'd both be alive and doing reasonably well today.
posted by mikeh at 10:01 AM on July 13, 2011

Given the martyrdom aspect, would it be worthwhile to be harsh and tell her she's making your like HARDER by not taking care of herself, and she should stop being so selfish? I had that talk with a friend once and she'd really never thought about how much of a hassle it was for everyone to have to take her to the ER all the time, and to not be able to count on her because she was sick from not having done basic self care.

I was in my 20s back then and more inclined to "tough love" approaches than I am now. I would be a lot gentler these days.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:10 AM on July 13, 2011

your LIFE harder, not like. need caffeine....

Basically, tell her she'll be no use to you or her grandkids if she doesn't do the maintenance, same as a car, and does she WANT to add to your burden? Okay, then! Now. What can you do to make it easier for her to get this stuff done!
posted by small_ruminant at 10:12 AM on July 13, 2011

Mom, I love you and I want you to be around as long as possible. A new mattress is being delivered Monday. It makes me feel so good to do a small thing like this for you.

Mom, I love you and I want you to be around as long as possible. I've made a dental appt. for you, and I'll pick you up so you don't have to take the bus. It would please me if you would do this for me. You taught me to be a responsible child, and I want to show how much I love and honor you.

Only do this for the urgent health issues. She is an adult and you can't live her life for her, much as you're doing it out of love.
posted by theora55 at 10:20 AM on July 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I really like what lizbunny and peachfuzz had to say, and I'll throw in a third possibility. You can judge which idea or combo of ideas works for you.

Sad as it is, you can also simply accept that your mother believes in martyrdom and suffering, and you don't.

In that scenario, nothing needs to be done, your mom doesn't need saving. You can honor her by gently telling her the truth ("Mom, you don't have to suffer backache and can simply get a new mattress, but have it your way. I'm off to do x fun/healthful/good thing with my life, talk to you next week!") and then start living the good life you are meant to. You can apply mindful awareness to your mom's choices without taking the consequences of her choices on as your burdens in life.

And yeah. If you can afford it (or can get your siblings to easily chip in) arrange for new mattress to be delivered! Do easy and caring things like this to make her life better when you can, but let the rest go.

Your mom is an adult. Respect her choices, even if you know they're wrong. Stop rewarding her bad choices by providing her the pay-off of worry and drama.

In the end, this is really not your problem, it's her's. It's OK to let it go.
posted by jbenben at 10:22 AM on July 13, 2011 [7 favorites]

Here in England the immediate family is all she has so it seems like her idea of love is sacrifice and martyrdom; self abnegation is her identity and also one of the few ways she feels she can 'help' us, but it just makes everyone feel shit.

Yeah...a friend's aunt fit this very description. She only lived for her kids and grandkids and denied herself everything. For over a year, she was suffering severe back pains but refused to go to a doctor, choosing to suffer through it.

It turns out those back pains were the result of a spreading cancer. When she finally went to the doctor, because the pain was unbearable, she was told she had at most 3 months to live. She was in her 60's. She's dead. Her kids are devastated. Her grandkids are small children who probably will grow up without any memories of their grandmother.

You can use my anecdote if you want. But a person who isn't even taking care of themselves, isn't really taking care of anybody.
posted by vacapinta at 10:29 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

As several others have suggested, have you tried twisting the martyrdom impulse around. "I know you hate going to the dentist, but it would make me happy." "I know you like your current mattress, and I know it's a little silly, but I feel guilty sleeping on a new mattress when you have an old one."

But know that it probably won't work.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:30 AM on July 13, 2011

I wonder if she feels like "If my kids didn't nag me about this stuff I'd never hear from them at all".

If so, the response can go two ways:
1. Give her lots of attention that's not focused on her martyr-problems
2. Let her be a martyr without giving her any attention for it.

The first way lets her know that she doesn't have to suffer to get her family to notice her, the second lets her know that martyrdom is not an effective tactic for getting attention. They're similar but not identical - the emphasis is on loving vs ignoring - and the best approach will depend on your mom's personality (and how charitable you're feeling).
posted by Quietgal at 11:25 AM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sometimes there's just an "oh I couldn't possibly" kind of aspect to taking care of yourself rather than taking care of others, especially for some older women. If you *can* do things like buying her a mattress, by all means. She probably really does appreciate when others take care of her, but the habits of a lifetime are hard to break to start with, and especially when you're around someone who's very happy to be "mememe" then she might not have much ability to really be self-interested.

My one grandmother is sort of like that. She takes care of her health a bit more, maybe, but she won't buy herself *anything*. She does, however, do tons for everybody else in the family and always has, and so I think at this point we've all settled on giving up a bit of our time and money now to make sure that she has the help she needs. And my lord, the way she lights up at things like a new chair or someone to help do her kitchen floor, I've realized that I actually do get something out of offering this help.
posted by gracedissolved at 12:37 PM on July 13, 2011

Do whatever you're going to do but the frustration you're expressing, while understandable, probably isn't helpful. Step back from blaming her because you don't know the forces she's entangled in, and all your frustration demonstrates is that you're entangled yourself. You don't know that a better mattress will solve her back problems. Switching up mattresses worsens mine.
posted by salvia at 8:25 PM on July 13, 2011

She's an adult and has free will. That means the free will to do stupid ass things.

Do what you can, as best you can and then let her deal with her choices. I'm not saying that to be harsh but we all learn our lessons in our own way. She's chosen hers. Yours might be in stepping back and taking care of what you can control.

Wishing you the best. Been there, done that.
posted by Mysticalchick at 6:17 AM on July 14, 2011

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