My mom is lonely and alone. Can I offer healthy support with boundaries?
March 31, 2015 1:12 AM   Subscribe

I recently posted my current situation here. I'm still struggling with a longstanding issue: My mom's undiagnosed (notwithstanding a brief stint on anti-depressants 15 years ago following her divorce) possible depression. About once or twice a year I find myself with her while she sobs uncontrollably and talks about how lonely and alone she feels as she ages. These are all valid feelings and fears, but everytime I bring up seeing a counsellor to help her get her life back on track, giver her tools to cope, filter out the negative energy in her life (such as her codependent relationship with her 29 y/o son), she refuses to admit there is a problem.

My mom is alone, she is lonely, she hates getting old alone, and this causes her, I think, so stay in her comfort zone and as a result she hasn't used her retirement and her significant financial safety net and even the fact that she speaks 4 languages fluently to do things she used to always talk about doing (travelling, living abroad, taking courses, etc). She often talks about how her other friends who are retired have managed to do all these great things (find partners, go to the theatre, try out new restaurants, etc) and she is often quite sad that she can't do these things "without a man". She has several friends but social engagements seem to be limited to walks, and teas, and "at home" visits. She is 68. She is aware that many of her married friends are "stuck in unhappy marriages" but yet is convinced they are happier than she is. Years ago she did a very good job to convince me she was happy being single and had no interest in pursuing a relationship, but a few years ago the truth came out: she is terrified of being alone and yet seems terrified to be proactive about finding a solution (is there even one? is being alone so bad? I know women of her age that have amazing single retired lives.)

Over the years, I've encouraged her to: seek counselling to get her life back on track, reassuring her it isn't a sign of weakness but rather of self love and strength; encouraged her to travel and attempted to sign her up for a group travel for seniors program (she kept saying she'd do it but never did); encouraged her to online date (but I was, I admit, personally apprehensive because my mother is quite "green" and I was worried the experience wouldn't be a good one. Protector instinct perhaps!) Nevertheless, I did take some beautiful photos, but in the end, she didn't make her profile (I think she expected me to do that too, and I admitted that this was quite a personal thing and that perhaps she should take charge in the final steps of on-line dating.) I've emailed her volunteer opportunities, and encouraged her to travel with me (and we have managed to take a few trips together, which have given us some good memories). I encouraged things like yoga, spa treatments, group therapy, Meetup type gatherings of like minded ppl, ways to connect with other single women her age who might feel similarly, etc., but she just hasn't taken me up on these ideas.

I wonder if she has a kind of fear about doing these things alone? Might be a generation/cultural/personal kind of thing. I'm not sure. The irony is that her mom, my grandmother, was insanely independent and had amazing adventures after her husband died and I have always been quite inspired by that.

Our last trip together when she came to visit me abroad resulted in one such episode where she burst into tears and said she sometimes didn't want to live because she was so alone.

Now, she has cancer, and I just don't know how to best support her and myself as she is going through this.

I hate giving off a "I told you so" vibe, but for years I've tried to suggest to my mom to improve her life in ways I thought she'd enjoy based on all the hints she'd drop in conversation about what would make her happy, but she ended up not doing most of it or going once and then totally bashing it ("Oh, that was so BORING, it was all OLD PEOPLE!" not realizing it was people in VERY similar situations as herself). Denial in her life is a major factor.

A lot of her life pre-cancer was solitude, gardening, and tv watching. None of this is a bad thing, mind you, unless it's not the life you've secretly wished for. With her cancer treatments, she's able to still DO all these things, but now she says things like "This illness has ruined my life, I can't do anything I used to do and I feel so stuck" when a. she IS doing everything she used to do and b. everything she WANTS to do now like travel, go over town, take a weekend getaway, etc. she could have done before she was ill but she never did.

Things JUST took another turn for the worse, as she has a colostomy bag, and now things like going to the cinema or a restaurant are terrifying for her because she feels even MORE limited, despite the fact that she is, actually, physically able to live her life as before.

There is a deeper decades-long problem here coupled with the current problem of cancer + bag. This to me = catastrophe.

How do I support her without going mad myself? I find I carry her emotions on my shoulders and it prevents me from living life with a certain lightness because I am always thinking about how my mom never fulfilled her own desires, and this makes me sad. I also know that expressing these feelings on my part is normal but I feel a little insensitive. I can't possibly know what she's going through. It's always easier to observe from the outside than experience it. I know she's in pain, and I don't know if I can help her.
posted by stumblingthroughitall to Human Relations (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately you may just have to put more focus on yourself than on your mom and see a therapist over these issues. I know you want to help your mom, but you can't force someone to accept help. You can only help yourself. For almost 20 years now your mother has not only burdening herself but also you. She has not been very fair to you. Your therapist will help you cope.

My grandmother was also depressed after my grandfather died, but she did her best to combat it. She tried to make new friends and lived as active a life as she knew how. When that still didn't work entirely, she sought help and went on anti-depressants. We were able to help her only because she was willing to help herself.

Only you know your mother enough to know if this is a good idea- but perhaps putting your foot down and giving her some tough love might help. A lot of times people who refuse to do anything about their situation except whine about it, only fall back on that because people are willing to listen to them whine. If you make it clear to her that 15 years and you've had enough; if you don't allow her to feel sorry for herself she might finally do something.
posted by manderin at 3:01 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'll also add that your mother seems to be addicted to the victim mentality. You are not required to drop everything and take care of your mom especially if she doesn't even try to meet you half way. I read your previous question and it almost seems to me like now that she does not have a husband or son to victimize her, she has decided to fill that void with "life" victimizing her. In order to pull that off she has to complain about it constantly to you.
posted by manderin at 3:15 AM on March 31, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think your mom desperately needs therapy, and it may be that the only way you can get her to try it is to convince her she's doing it for your sake. Beg her. Tell her you are torn apart by the thought of your mother facing a terminal diagnosis alone and being so desperately unhappy, and you're so upset you can hardly sleep at night. (Yes, you may have to exaggerate and be a bit of a drama queen. But if ever a white lie was justified, this is the time.)

You may need to use the words, Mom, I'm begging you. If she feels like her bad situation is making her child miserable, that might motivate her to do something. Maybe that feels too manipulative or weird or embarrassing to you, but acting out like that now may save you from some much worse drama later. Tell yourself that you're doing it to save her life, because you kind of are.

Your mom is suffering horribly, in ways it's hard for most folks to imagine. She's terminal, depressed and alone, and she's got a goddamned colostomy bag. Jesus, anybody might be miserable in her situation. And yes, some of her problems are the result of bad choices she's made, but try to resist the I told you so's. The fact is that her time is running out, and she can spend her remaining days in lonely agony or she can try to find some joy in the time she has left. Sobbing to you about her troubles doesn't actually make her troubles any better. She needs to DO things.

Try to impress upon her that she has a choice: she can stay locked away at home, lonely and unhappy, or she can not do that. Her life isn't over yet. She needs therapy. She needs some fresh air. So the most loving thing you could do for her right now might be to lay a horrible guilt trip on her. Try to guilt her into making some big changes, before it's truly too late. If she won't do what's right for herself, maybe she'll do it for her child's sake.

I'm sorry you're having to go through this.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:08 AM on March 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is she still considered terminally ill, like 3-5 years? If that's the case and if she has recently had major surgery, this may just be a huge life transition for her and you may have little option other than to let her feel sad about this right now.

I agree with Ursula Hitler that therapy might help. A family member of mine who went through cancer with a similar life expectation saw a remarkable oncological psychiatrist who was very compassionate and also coordinated antidepressants with cancer and pain medications. If someone like that could be found for her I think it could be really helpful.
posted by BibiRose at 8:01 AM on March 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

My mom sounds a lot like yours. Strikingly so.

What I've found, over decades of dealing with this, is that ultimately it's not your problem to solve. As hard as it is to watch a loved one suffer, if they truly do not want to get help or change, it will not happen. THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT AND YOU CANNOT CHANGE THIS. By all means, be supportive, listen to her, sympathize. But try taking a step back from trying to fix her. Try to accept her for who she is right now, not who she could be. Once I gave myself permission to let my mother's issues just be her issues, our relationship really improved. She no longer feels like she is failing to meet my standards, and I don't twist myself up trying to convince her to do things that she, for whatever reason, doesn't feel capable of doing.

Good luck. I'm happy to chat about specific coping strategies via PM if you want.
posted by ananci at 9:35 AM on March 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

This is really rough. Honestly, I would suggest getting therapy for YOU, both because this sounds very hard and because it is something you can actually control.

A few thoughts:

--I'm not sure how it is useful for anyone, either you internally or you saying out loud for your mother, to voice regrets about travels and adventures she could have taken. Although people with colostomy bags can and do travel and do all sorts of fun and adventurous things, obviously continuing cancer treatments and other issues related to her age and illness may impact her ability to travel independently. While it's sad she didn't accomplish some of those things she'd always talked about, there's no going back on time. While I think it is legitimate for her to feel some grief over that to the extent that she does, I don't think it's helpful for you to get hung up on it since it can't be changed at this point. Why make her feel bad about something that cannot be undone?

--I cannot manage to Google the right term for the life of me (argh!) but there's a great concept out there imagining people in a difficult situation in terms of concentric circles. The person most directly affected (here, your mom who has cancer) is in the middle of the circle. Her direct caregivers and closest family (i.e. you) might be in the next circle out. Then outside of that would be people like your spouse/partner/friends. And outside of that would be their friends and loved ones. The idea here is that support should flow in, and requests for support/help should flow out. So, if you are feeling shitty about this situation and need someone to vent to, try really hard not to vent to your mom! Choose a therapist, friend, significant other, religious leader, etc. In turn, it's possible that those people would experience some impact -- for example, perhaps you talk to this with your best friend, and she gets freaked out thinking about her own parents and possible health problems they could get down the road. There, it would be better for her to turn to, say, her husband for support on that rather than putting all those feelings on you.

This isn't a perfect model, of course. But I think it does emphasize that your mom is the primary person suffering here -- she's the one who's having to come to terms with dying, and experience the pain and suffering of cancer and surgery, etc. etc. Your suffering is real too, of course! But maybe seek out some alternate place to work that out than inside your relationship with your mom.

-- Finally, you cannot control your mom. You can't force her to get therapy, go to the movies, or travel the world. You can make suggestions, but ultimately her life is her own. Would you rather spend the last years you have with her focusing on all the things she didn't do and all the regrets you have for her and fighting with her about what she could be doing better? Or would you rather spend it just loving her and accepting that she's doing the best she can, even if the outcome is imperfect.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:22 PM on March 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

How do I support her without going mad myself?

Decide how much listening to her complain you can handle then listen to her for that length of time. When that time span is achieved, disengage. Getting stuck in a game of Yes, But won't end well for either of you. I think that she's not looking for help, she's looking for validation.

If you still want to engage, perhaps instead of offering help, ask questions that force her to challenge her situation. If she's unhappy that she can't garden any more, ask her if she can think of a way she could enjoy gardening anyway.

I don't have much patience with people who just want to complain and not take even the slightest little step towards making their situation any better. So, I once, with a friend who was in the middle of a self-pit spiral, completely catastrophised the situation and made it seem much worse than it was, to a comic degree. I seem to recall it ended up with said friend being abducted by aliens. We both ended up laughing in the end at the absurdity of what I was saying, and it seemed to give her a little more perspective.

It's OK to reach a point where you've just heard enough for the day, and set a boundary that you don't want to hear any more about it. It's not about being cruel, it's about knowing your limits and caring for yourself. Don't make yourself a martyr to her problems too.
posted by Solomon at 1:33 PM on March 31, 2015

The thing rainbowbrite describes is called the Ring Theory, and it is described here.
posted by delezzo at 1:45 PM on March 31, 2015

I see this scene being played out in a dozen families.

Hordes of stranded, progressively isolated, and static women whose meaning and purpose has (in their minds) declined to zero, and who seem powerless to effect change. Men don't have it as bad, IME, since their ability to choose a wider range of potential mates is based more on economics. At a point, it becomes a problem for a man of advanced age, but this isolated female problem seems to me to pop up hella earlier in life. A lot of them group together in same sex piles that go on tours and cruises and man-free adventures. A precious few are brilliant, self-actualized, adventurous, dynamos that care not one whit if a man is around. I'd guess 1 out of 20 are like that. (About the same for men... not many folks are self-actualized.) This isn't science i'm spouting... it's just what I see as an aging man with lots and lots and lots of aging women friends.

One particularly relevant case is an in-law. Hopeless and destructive to her daughter.... whom I see every day. Carbon copy of your situation. Not enough difference to even list.

Our myth here in the USA is that our kids are supposed to take care of us when we age AND that we are GOING to have relationships that last until we die. Sometimes it happens, but it often entails human sacrifice... the youngest daughter gets the short straw. Mates stay together unhappy because it's slightly happier than being alone and unhappy.

Another myth is that as kids, we are honor bound to sacrifice our lives to support people who WILLINGLY created us and (via covert contract) expect us to pay them back for the CHOICE they made to create babies. We just show up to a party where we eventually get to clean up?

My experience of an aging cohort is that the 50's era adults have it worst... folks 10-20 years older than me. They are ancient now, weak, old, alone and the mating prospects are dim and competition high. It's tragic and I don't know what to do about it myself, but I find myself being as much of a male friend as I can to the ones closest by, and wonder what will happen in the next 20 years? I don't have kids (or thankfully, living parents). Or expectations of salvation other than by my own actions.

With parents, though, there is a big moral quandary to navigate... how much of ourselves do we discard and spend in service to someone else's life, needs, and hopes? How long do we encourage them to make a better way for themselves before we can turn aside and stop trying? What difference does it make if when you try to make someone happy and can't? When they are determined to complain but not change? When they look to you for meaning, entertainment, purpose, and service?

Adulthood is achieved when you get the skills to deal with your own issues, and the maturity to know what is your responsibility. Some parents never get there, or can't remember where they left those skills. A good kid can only do so much, and no good kid would kill himself in sacrifice to a good parent. She is failing YOU by not being effective and by not trying.

I sincerely urge you not to fall for it. Not that she's a bad person, but that boundaries are blurry and you should get clarity on which job is whose.
posted by FauxScot at 7:54 PM on March 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

Your Mom has been a problem for a long time, probably due to a clinical depression which has made her unable to step up and step out and do things she'd like to do - showing little interest in previously enjoyed activities is one of the hallmarks of depression and very common in older single people. The thing is older people have led full lives with spouses and children and friends and coworkers and homes and yards and jobs and ... then it's all gone. All those things that you're involved in now, that keep you busy and sometimes drive you frantic - they're just all gone in one moment, or at least it seems that way. So the natural reaction is confusion and a feeling of being lost - mainly because there's no need to set ANY goals this week, let alone 15 goals for the day like you're used to doing. Also part of the aging thing is loss - they've lost friends and sometimes children and their homes and their "stuff" - and honestly, every day their very independence is at risk. They have medical issues that threaten them, medications they have to take when they said they'd never ever be stuck on medicines and doctors.

So your Mom has been a handful as she weaves her way through this morass of getting old and feeling alone and lonely and unneeded and depressed. But here's the thing that's new: Your mother now has cancer. And that, my friend, changes the game.

Have you thought of how you would feel if you had a colostomy bag and every time you went to the grocery or to a movie or restaurant or to a friend's home you'd have to be in a cold sweat that your bag would suddenly need changing or, God help you, overflow? Your Mom is around my age and I can tell you that it doesn't get easier to deal with stuff like this - it gets harder - because it just validates the idea that we already have that we're OLD and worthless and falling apart and who'd want us around, anyway? Add a colostomy bag to that mix and you've got the picture.

Your mother has cancer and it's probably not going away, certainly not without dreadful chemo treatments and days of weakness and nausea and vomiting and chills and other stuff. So who's going to be with her through this? Do you have siblings with whom you can share this new imposition on your time? If not, you'll need to find a way to get a helper for her, a caregiver or visiting nurse or even just a housekeeper who will pop in and help her out and poke at her to get something to eat or - just visit with her and make her feel like she's part of the world. That's what my housekeeper lady friend does - and I adore her.

I live in a beehive of a building - 15 stories, 150 apartments, all old people. We look out for each other and we have a few chosen friends among the crowd and we exchange names of good carers and lousy housekeepers and places to get our hair cut cheap. Some play cards, some bingo, some BBQ, some just sit around the patio. Every one of us has something - if not a colostomy bag, it's a walker or oxygen or no hair or giant hearing aids and we still can't hear or - something. So we don't even notice that kind of stuff anymore and if someone's colostomy bag "went off" no one would think much about it. I don't know what your mother's living arrangements are like now, but you might consider the option of an adult-oriented apartment complex. This one is not assisted-living, doesn't serve meals or provide nursing care, but that also leaves us in a position of being able to call our own shots, too.

I'm so sorry you're dealing with this, but you know everyone sooner or later has to deal with this stuff. I went through it with my parents and grandparents and now I'm old and hobbling around and my poor son looks at me sideways like you do your Mom. It's the way the world turns.

Try to forget her previous neediness and recognize that now - NOW - she really IS needy. Be there for her, but try to find others to share the care. When you lose your Mom, hopefully many years from now, you'll know you did it right and you'll be glad. But do get help, okay?
posted by aryma at 12:33 AM on April 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

When people talk about not getting pulled into her drama, I don't know if they're really factoring in her prognosis. Going by your previous question, I'm assuming your mom is still expected to live 3-5 years. Now, she may exceed that estimate... or she may not. 3-5 years isn't as long as it sounds. I'd encourage you to do whatever you can to make peace with her, short of doing lasting harm to your own life. You're not looking at decades of drama and co-dependent bullshit. You're looking at dealing with the end of her life, relatively soon.

One of the nice things about the big drama queen freakout I suggested before is that it's over fast, and kind of puts it on her to get therapy or live with the knowledge that by not going to therapy she's causing you pain. You're shaking things up, making her take a look at her own behavior. If that doesn't work, I think all you can do is give your mom as much patience as you can, while her life ends in the sad, lonely way she's decided it has to end.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:15 AM on April 1, 2015

I'm so sorry you're dealing with this, but you know everyone sooner or later has to deal with this stuff. I went through it with my parents and grandparents and now I'm old and hobbling around and my poor son looks at me sideways like you do your Mom. It's the way the world turns.

I can't favorite aryma's comments enough. Maybe your mother has put herself in this position-- I want to shake your brother for taking up so much of her time and resources while not being any practical use-- but you can play the end of life game right in every respect, and still "lose." I think my father's number one priority was to have someone to look after him. My mother died early and he found someone else to marry. Taking care of him with his long-term health issues, ceased to amuse her and she started leaving him alone for long periods. He according to doctors still had a couple of years left when he was talking about moving close to my sister. He might have done so, too, but he just kind of checked out, or "up and died," as people used to say, instead. I am convinced it was deliberate. In the US, we have a shitty system for dealing with old age and we do a lot of blaming of the victims. Which very much includes the family, in my mind.

As for what you are supposed to do, the idea that you are supposed to spend the next 3-5 years doing this full time, is part of the problem we have in this country. But I think it might help to think of it as your whole family running afoul of our system and way of life.
posted by BibiRose at 6:57 AM on April 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

« Older Great fiction in online game form   |   Portland Oregon car squatter woes. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.