Helping a struggling parent.
February 29, 2012 5:45 PM   Subscribe

My poor, overworked, lonely, non-English-speaking immigrant mother is approaching 50. Her daily existence is a living hell. Short of winning the lottery, what can I do to improve her quality of life?

Language: My mother has been studying English in some way or another for over ten years (group classes, community college ESL). Her spoken English remains halting and rudimentary, to the point of leaving her unable to order food in restaurants reliably. She finds using English unpleasant and debilitating, and avoids English-language conversation in every way possible. She has no regular English-speaking acquaintances.

Career: My mother has held a number of menial jobs, from night cleaning staff member to dollar store cashier, usually several at a time, at all times of day, almost every day of the week. Her full-time job at the moment is care assistant at a hospital, which is physically demanding, low-paying, and depressing work. Most of her jobs involve taking explicit directions or repeating a simple process.

Education: My mother earned a four-year degree from a Soviet university in the 80s and, before coming to the US, had an HR job at a large industrial facility. No one advised her to get her education certified before she came to the US, and she never got an apostille. Doing so now would require sending the original papers to a dysfunctional bureaucracy in Eastern Europe. Since relatively recently she has been attending classes at a local community college. With her extremely limited free time, it will take her many years to finish any credential. The way she talks about her efforts makes it seem as if she is not talking to her advisor. She complains that her advisor is rude and unapproachable (I've met with him and did not form that impression). She is not sure why she chose her program, or what the requirements are, or what else may be available, or how this additional education may benefit her.

Family: My mother has no family this side of the Atlantic with the exception of me and my younger brother. Her ex-husband's extensive family lives in her city, but their behavior toward her has invariably been condescending and manipulative. She makes occasional calls to her older sister in Eastern Europe, but openly resents her for various reasons.

Religion: My mother does attend an Eastern Orthodox church on religious holidays, but her faith is completely ritualistic and even superstitious. She is not interested in sermons, teachings, the holy writ, or the company of the other congregants. Her participation is limited to carrying out certain rituals, under fear of supernatural punishment in daily life. In the past, she has been open to visits from Jehovah's Witnesses. She believes the supernatural has an active influence in people's lives, especially in matters of health.

Health: My mother has chronically low blood pressure, complains of fatigue, suffers from occasional edema, and is overweight (despite more or less living on air). She neglects regular preventive care. Her PCP of many years is Russian-speaking. My mother complains that her doctor is incompetent and ignores patients' concerns. In response to why she doesn't switch physicians, she says that "doctors never help." She is a strong adherent of alternative medicine and has a collection of tracts on how to cure heart disease/arthritis/cancer with blueberries/apple cider vinegar/dilute human urine.

Mental health: My mother has an advanced hoarding problem. As a result, she's had trouble getting her lease renewed. At one time I found her physically unable to sleep in her bedroom. Her minivan has no room for passengers. When I mention this to her, she reacts in ways that are typical of other hoarders — extreme agitation, childish evasiveness, pressured speech.

In summary: My mother is a stoic and makes absolutely no demands on me. Given the above, I worry that her already difficult existence may suddenly become a lot more precarious — because of health, money, work, whatever. She has clearly been unable to make successful plans for this stage of her life. And no matter how eager and ready I may be to help her with anything she might need, I live in a different state and have very finite resources of my own.

What can I do to improve my mother's quality of life and help ensure her continued relative well-being?
posted by Nomyte to Human Relations (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Invite her to do things she will enjoy with you. Spend time with her and bring your family members along, do special things like cooking together or making things.

Don't try to change fundamental things about her - you'll just be frustrated. You can't makeover her life. She has to want her life to change herself for that to happen. Yes, you could try to clean out her house, show her the error of her superstitious ways, push her to make new friendships and get new hobbies, force her to see a Russian-speaking therapist or psychiatrist to deal with some of her issues, but I don't think this would end up being a rewarding exercise for you or for her. That's just my opinion.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:59 PM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is there a Russian community center in her area? I'm not specifically sure if she's Russian or Eastern European [Latvian, Estonian, etc.] but the Russian community center in my area has a fairly sizable population of immigrants from former USSR countries. She might also find others with a similar belief structure.

I would also add that she should look into whatever her former major was. If she enjoyed it, it might be in her interest to undertake a similar course of study at her community college.
posted by oxfordcomma at 6:08 PM on February 29, 2012

Is moving a possibility? Perhaps she would do better in a community with a larger population of fellow expats, more opportunities for work and socialising, and potentially better access to social services? I keep starting to write other things, but I really think local, same language people are going to be her greatest source of assistance.
posted by thylacinthine at 6:17 PM on February 29, 2012

There is a situation in my family that is not that far removed yours. In my situation, all I've been able to come up with is this: You can't prevent things from falling apart. You can do small things here and there, but ultimately all you can do as her child is to decide if you are wiling to pick up the pieces in the event that things do fall apart. And if that answer is yes, work to get yourself into the best position in order to do that picking up of pieces, financially and otherwise. I wish I had better suggestions. Maybe others will have ideas.
posted by the jam at 6:20 PM on February 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

Would she be happier back in her birth country? What's keeping her in the US?

The career stuff (working insanely long hours at multiple simple, low-paying jobs) and hoarding sound to me like the people I know who have been traumatized by poverty. I have a feeling that even if she won the lottery she would never stop these behaviors, some people like this die with multiple millions in the bank.

And of course the hoarding and religious stuff sound like the people I've known with OCD.

These sound like the ways your mom copes in order to feel safe. I think you will never have success in taking these behaviors from her as long as she feels unsafe, if that's what's going on. That is a job for a professional.

To get her to see a professional, I think you are going to have to work entirely within her comfort zone. No trying to get her to stretch. Is there anyone she trusts, such as a religious figure or alternative health practitioner who is not a quack? She might be willing to see someone recommended by someone she trusts.
posted by cairdeas at 7:01 PM on February 29, 2012

It sounds like she needs (Russian-speaking) friends and some free time to spend with them. The only way to get her more free time will be if she can get a better paying job, I suspect. Can you try to sort out her degree paperwork for her? Get the apostille? I know it's risky to send original papers off to a dysfunctional bureaucracy, but honestly the papers are doing her no good now as they are, so even if they get lost, she won't be worse off. Do you know anyone travelling to Russia who would be prepared to see if they can do anything in person? How well do YOU know her sister? Could you ask her to try and sort it out as a favour/birthday present?
posted by lollusc at 7:05 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Sorry: I see now you say "Soviet" and "Eastern Europe", not "Russia" specifically. Please substitute mentions of "Russia" in my comment for whatever the appropriate country is.
posted by lollusc at 7:06 PM on February 29, 2012

You could probably also make certified copies of the papers at a bank or a lawyer's office, which might give you some security.

Your mom sounds isolated and depressed. Whether her limited English and crummy work situation are the cause or just exacerbating it, who knows. It's probably irrelevant now.

Could you practice English with her? Maybe a phone call a few times a week? If she won't--she may be afraid of failing in front of you--maybe you could see if a college student studying her language would be interested in a conversation exchange? Even over the phone might help.

Finally, perhaps with her limited time, she would be interested in volunteering with refugee resettling with her church or other organization? Helping others get organized may help her get organized, too.
posted by elizeh at 7:15 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for your kind suggestions! Please keep them coming.

treehorn+bunny: Spend time with her and bring your family members along, do special things like cooking together or making things.

I live several states away and have no family of my own. At the end of a long day, she does not want to cook or "make things." I visit several times a year and take her out for meals, but I don't think she finds going out at all relaxing.

oxfordcomma: Is there a Russian community center in her area?

I wish I knew! She's in Rochester, NY. There are sizable Russian and Ukrainian communities, and she has a small number of occasional acquaintances. She is very disdainful of the idea of going somewhere to socialize. There are class issues in the way — most of her peers are working professionals, she's a manual laborer. Most of her Ukrainian peers come from minority religious communities and are intensely religious and family-oriented. She is most comfortable in the company of the retired housebound elderly, which, I think, gives her a distorted perspective on reality.

I would also add that she should look into whatever her former major was.

Political economy. She did not enjoy it.

cairdeas: Would she be happier back in her birth country? What's keeping her in the US?

The complete absence of any life to go back to. She has been in the US for almost two decades.

Is there anyone she trusts, such as a religious figure or alternative health practitioner who is not a quack?

Sadly, I don't know her acquaintances well enough to prevail upon them to start recommending mental health professionals. If only!

lollusc: Can you try to sort out her degree paperwork for her?

I've been thinking of that. There's an out-of-date webpage with an email address, but I haven't managed to get a response in any language. The degree is almost 30 years old by now and may be unverifiable. I don't know anyone who's going to be in the right area who would be willing to deal with the Dept. of Education of our behalf. Her sister lives an overnight train journey away from where the papers need to go.

elizeh: Could you practice English with her? Maybe a phone call a few times a week?

She works evenings and nights and literally does not have the time and energy. I've been thinking of the language tutor idea, but I don't know how to set her up with a student studying Russian, especially given her extremely limited schedule. Do students ever practice their skills with members of immigrant communities?

Finally, perhaps with her limited time, she would be interested in volunteering with refugee resettling with her church or other organization?

The church she is most likely to attend does not offer any social services (most Russian or Ukrainian-speaking immigrants come from minority religious communities). The only social service organization I'm aware of in her area is the Jewish Family Service, on which subject she has a very negative opinion (she is not Jewish, but her ex-husband is).
posted by Nomyte at 7:34 PM on February 29, 2012

Not that you should have them for her sake, but are you at all near to having kids? Because I've seen people in circumstances similar to hers absolutely blossom when they become grandparents, like it's a whole new reason to live. (It might even possibly maybe be the motivation to de-hoard, since kids can't really hang out in a hoarder's den.)

Beyond that the only thing I can suggest is the if there is a large Russian community where you live, there will probably be retirement communities there that would cater to them. I don't know how much those things cost though.

This sounds very hard for you. I sympathize. Do try to remember that she loves you and is surely gratified every day by you being successful and happy; don't try to take her depression upon yourself in an effort to be sympathetic. Better to give her something to be pleased by.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:36 PM on February 29, 2012

Low blood pressure plus high body weight on low calorie intake are textbook symptoms of thyroid issues. Which affect mood and mental state. Honestly, I think the one most potentially helpful intervention would be for you to go with her to her doctor and insist they do a thorough work up.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:44 PM on February 29, 2012 [10 favorites]

There are firms that expedite the process of certifying academic credentials from many countries in the former Soviet Union. It's worth looking into to see if your mother's country of origin is served by some of these firms, maybe?
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:46 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Low blood pressure plus high body weight on low calorie intake are textbook symptoms of thyroid issues. Which affect mood and mental state.

I know, that's the worst part! She's paying for health insurance, it's not like basic medical care is out of her reach. I've had her get a CMP, which, apparently, failed to reveal anything alarming to her doctor. Her doctor, who she will not leave, does not want to pursue it further, and neither does my mother.

There are firms that expedite the process of certifying academic credentials from many countries in the former Soviet Union.

Are you thinking of some sort of credential evaluation service? There are many, but they all want a credential with an apostille. A valid, even if useless, degree may restore some of her dignity and self-esteem. I think she is the only Soviet professional (whose story I know) who didn't get her credential transferred, due to some very bad advice from her ex-husband's family.
posted by Nomyte at 7:58 PM on February 29, 2012

Both Syracuse and U Rochester have Russian language programs.
posted by brujita at 8:12 PM on February 29, 2012

A bit different from a community center, I suggest she could get a lot from volunteering at a nursing home that houses Russian-speaking elderly folks. Some/most of them would probably speak English fairly well and just by spending time there she would start learning better English. She would have other people to worry about instead of herself. These people would really appreciate her and her time.
posted by Glinn at 8:51 PM on February 29, 2012

I memailed you.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:01 PM on February 29, 2012

I know this is a totally out there suggestion, but what's keeping her in NY? What about her moving to the same state as you? She would be closer to you, and moving house would require cleaning out much of the crap. Fresh start, away from the ex's family, near you. I understand this might not work for various reasons, but wanted to suggest it just in case.
posted by Joh at 9:48 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

seconding her moving closer to you. at the very least, when her life falls apart it will be less of an ordeal for you. on the better side of the possibilities, she could start making some changes that could make her life manageable with your (eventually firm) support.
posted by cupcake1337 at 12:04 AM on March 1, 2012

Pimsleur do an English for Russian speakers course. I've used them before, they are excellent, though expensive. It's all audio, so she might be able to do it during one of her boring repetitive jobs, or commuting between them (if she drives). The course is good for perfectionists, which it sounds like your mother might be, as you make all your mistakes (or most of them) when no one is watching.
posted by kjs4 at 4:23 AM on March 1, 2012

Are you thinking of some sort of credential evaluation service?

No. These are expediting services that have their folks in the other country dig up the originals of the credentials, get notarized (or local equivalent) copies, etc.

I'm afraid I can't tell you how to find them, except maybe to check with the people in a large university registrar's office or with the embassy/consulate of your mother's home country. I'm only peripherally aware of their existence from my university administration days, but I remember them being discussed by the registrar.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:40 AM on March 1, 2012

Best answer: A fellow child of Ukrainian immigrants here. My mother's also having or had variations on the same issues, so I feel for you. Memail me if you want someone to talk to.

Here are a few things that my mother seems to enjoy.

1). Skype. She went to the equivalent of her high school reunion in Russia and reconnected with lots of old friends. Now she seems to spend much of her free time chatting with long-lost family and friends. Once she started, she just kept finding more and more people to reconnect with. and even Facebook are great places to start finding people. She also discovered that some of her college friends moved to the United States, and even though they don't live in the same city, the possibility of visits has really perked her up.

2). Jewish Community Center. I know you noted her history with the Jewish community, and also the fact that your mother isn't Jewish. Neither is mine. My father was Jewish though, so our family got some invaluable social worker guidance, training, etc. from the JFC when we first came. Now my mother has a membership at the JCC, and she goes for fitness classes and to swim in the pool. There are lots of other Russian speakers there, so it's not only helping her get healthier, but also providing a social outlet.

3). Doctors. Oh, was it ever difficult to get my mother to change doctors. The only thing that worked was finding another Russian-speaking internist for her to try. (JFC in the Baltimore area by the way was very helpful when I reached out to see if they had a list of Russian-speaking health providers. In the end, after lots and lots of prodding, she switched to a doctor she heard about from an acquaintance.) She still tries "to cure heart disease/arthritis/cancer with blueberries/apple cider vinegar/dilute human urine" (you crack me up), but as most middle-aged people from former USSR, she's amenable to giving traditional medicine a shot as well. She'll complain about it, and she'll try to go off her meds all the time, but I can usually coax her back to her regiment. I used to get distracted by the alternative medicine thing and arguing with her about that, but I've found it more productive to just urge her to pursue both alternative and traditional paths.

4). Visits. Her first visit to her family after many years in the US helped rekindle those relationships. Many old resentments and rifts were healed, or at least minimized, by everyone just getting together. The value of family ties is deeply rooted in our culture, as you know, so this has been a source of comfort.

5). Remarriage. I'm so thankful that my mother and her husband (also from Ukraine) found their way to each other. Now, you can help her with any of the first four items on this list by contributing skills, time, or money. You can't help her with her love life. I do however wish in retrospect that I'd been more supportive of my mother's extraordinarily complex, unorthodox, and improbable plans for meeting someone. I was very young at the time and very critical, thinking she should try to be more independent and happier with being single because that was what I valued and wanted in my own life.

Here are some things that don't seem to have mattered very much in the end, though they seemed important.

1). Getting her college credentials transferred. Honestly, unless someone's trying to go back to brain surgery or nuclear engineering (or, more realistically, IT or programming), I'm not sure that anyone in US cares if you get your paperwork certified. She can list that university degree on her resume. It might help her get a clerical job. The lack of the certified degree isn't what's keeping your mother from getting the American equivalent of her former position though. It hasn't helped my mother or most of her friends any.

2). Realistically, for middle-aged immigrants, ESL classes will help with isolation only in introducing the immigrant students to each other so that they might become friends. My mother took night classes for about 5 years. She still doesn't socialize with any Americans. She honestly got to the point of fluency at one point, though her English has deteriorated somewhat since then. She has a thick accent, which given her age is unlikely to go away, and her syntax is idiosyncratic. Americans have to strain to understand her, and most don't want to make that much effort all the time. She gets frustrated and doesn't want to make the effort and constantly repeat herself either. The strain in the conversation sometimes leads to things like loud and slow speaking and use of simple words that are interpreted on both sides as insulting. Moreover, there's the cultural gulf. She has never heard of How I Met Your Mother or Harry Potter. They've never heard of Irony of Fate or Tsvetayeva. Younger people find it easier to get past these differences, enjoy them even, but most middle-aged and elderly immigrants I know find this extraordinarily difficult regardless of their English level.

I could probably go on, but I'll restrain myself. Good luck.
posted by whimwit at 9:59 AM on March 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

I was going to suggest, but apparently they've gone out of business. All I can do is wish you well and agree with whimwit that the college credentials thing is probably unnecessary except to give your mother a little more self-confidence (though, really, I wonder how much difference it would make). I think you basically just have to hope she manages to make friends with somebody who raises her spirits. Good luck to you and her.
posted by languagehat at 10:18 AM on March 1, 2012

I have mother troubles. My Mom needs a lot of help, but is/was very resistant to get any help. Frustration times a million.

I don't know how close you are with your mother, but one thing that I did to break down some of her walls was to have a VERY frank discussion about our love and our relationship. My mother was severely abused in her childhood and has, throughout her life, been depressed and suicidal. Her health isn't that great. Her mental health was just...a dark, dark place. Naturally, it has changed the landscape of my own life.

As her daughter and closest living relative, it has become my life to answer the phone with a sense of dread because my mother has so many issues. But we love each other, and I know she loves me more than anything on the planet.

I had to literally break down and cry my heart out to her about how all this makes me feel. That the demons in her past continually knock on my door 24/7/365. I know she doesn't want that. She also doesn't want me to worry myself sick every night and not live my own life, my mind constantly on her problems.

I let her know that I would NEVER give up on her, no matter how many times she tries and fails. I did a little tough love. I reminded her of all the times she has encouraged me. I didn't let her off the hook for still being a big force in my life. If she's not doing OK, then I am not doing OK. She needed to get help, and to accept help. No excuses.

By sheer determination and a hysterical crying moment, I was able to convince her that I only wanted her to be happy, and if she loves me like she claims to, she needed to work with me so that her abusers didn't knock on my door every day and invite themselves in.

Like I said above, I have no idea how close you are to your mother, and what kind of communication you guys have. I had tried everything I could think of, and then I appealed to her mother instinct (out of crying frustration and truly being scared for her welfare constantly). I don't know if you could visit her or, better, convince her to move closer to you or you closer to her. (It's just easier to handle these kinds of things if you're closer. It just is.). Can you have a deep, personal conversation with her about how all this is killing you slowly?

If she's too stubborn for all that, than disregard, but I got through to my stubborn-ass mother, (after trying every other avenue) by appealing to her mother instinct. It worked for me. YMMV.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 5:56 AM on March 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

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