How can my partner and I stop getting exploited by his family?
August 18, 2017 7:57 PM   Subscribe

My partner had a stress-induced psychotic break from the demands of caregiving for an elderly, chronically ill parent. His family is taking advantage of him (and me). YANML or social worker, but any advice on how to deal with this situation is appreciated.

My partner, L., a man of about 40, has a mental illness that causes episodes of psychosis under stress. He was diagnosed about 10 years ago. Since then, he’s been living with his mother. He has worked sporadically and been on meds.

When I met L. about two years ago, he told me he had promised his mother he would take care of her in her old age, and he felt that he owed that to her because she had taken him back home as an adult when he got sick. I entered the relationship on those terms. We are now living together and I have taken on some of his mother’s care. She needs 24-hour attendance and has mobility and balance issues, and her mind is affected as well though she is still relatively sharp.

I soon learned that my partner was the “identified patient” in a dysfunctional family and that he felt controlled financially and emotionally by his three siblings, who are successful, independent adults. His stance toward them has been one of placation, for fear he might be thrown out and go homeless if he displeases them or his mother. None of them live with us but they live in the same area.

L. and I are now both taking care of his mother 24-7. L. has a job through a home health care company that is funded by the government to pay him for 15 hours of caretaking for her per week. I am a freelancer and my income is a few hundred a month. I have some mental health issues myself that make it difficult to work a 9-5.

L’s mother insists that we pay her everything we bring in for rent and bills, and shames us for not being able to pay our “fair share.” Essentially, we are indentured servants. L. seems to feel like he has to put up with this or go homeless.

We are at her beck and call morning, noon, and night. L’s condition is exacerbated by sleeplessness and she feels entitled to wake him whenever she has a bad dream, hears a weird noise, or has to pee (which I understand is legit as she can’t easily get to the bathroom on her own).

L’s financially secure siblings will occasionally give us money for food, because his mother insists on organics and we are both on food stamps and can’t afford them. One brother takes the mother for respite rarely. L’s siblings have indicated that they believe L “lived off” his mother for 10 years so this is an equitable quid pro quo. However, L was not immobilized and needing to be waited on hand and foot. He also worked, though sporadically. And he kept his mother company, which she needed, being a widow who never worked outside the home.

She receives some money, I think it’s a pension from her late husband and Social Security. Her monthly income is just over $2000 per month. L’s is about $400 after taxes and mine varies but it’s usually only $100 or $200 in freelance income.

L is in the hospital due to this breakdown and his mother is with another sibling. I have a chance to sit down and figure out the situation. I’ve looked at caregiver pay and live-ins make several thousand dollars a month PLUS room and board in some cases. The siblings claim they don’t have the money to pay for anyone, which I think is bullshit.

My partner seems to feel conflicted. I’ve told him my opinion. On the one hand he knows he’s being exploited but on the other hand he loves his mother and feels responsible for her. He has told me he wants to keep caretaking, but get respite regularly. I do believe his siblings and mother love him. They rationalize the hell out of this arrangement, though. And my partner has never known how a family with good boundaries operates, or what it’s like to not be at the bottom of the pecking order (he’s the youngest and also “the crazy one.”) I feel like his family switches their opinion of him to whatever is convenient for them at the time. He’s either “too mentally ill to work” or a “mooch.” They can’t have it both ways, though.

What I’ve already done to solve the problem:
-Applied for more freelance work and other positions that I might be able to do, so I can hire someone to come in and help my partner.
-Described this situation to the social worker in charge of coordinating my partner’s mental health care.
-Researched different types of respite we might be able to afford, such as adult day care and volunteer helpers.
-In the process of looking for someone to help L. get on disability.

Any suggestions are welcome. I’m sure there are things I don’t even know I should be asking.
posted by Beethoven's Sith to Human Relations (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your partner might qualify for some funding, if he is ill. You both need to be somewhere eise, mom needs to be in a facility, so she can get care, and you are free. Her money will go to her care. You guys need to get independent. Immediately. You are vulnerable being there and being of no relation to her, you could be accused of all kinds of stuff, the siblings might decide things are missing, and etc.

Get some professional help, to get out of the trap you are in. Hurry.
posted by Oyéah at 8:22 PM on August 18, 2017 [13 favorites]

Is he capable of living independently or of holding down a job? It seems to me that his family's treatment of him (expecting round-the-clock care for Mom, taking his/your money) might qualify as dependent adult abuse, which is a crime. At minimum, it's abusive behavior and exploitation which he is unable to self-protect from. For his own health, he cannot continue to act as his mother's caregiver.
posted by epj at 8:28 PM on August 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm going to address the question in the title of this ask. Walk away. Either he walks away or you walk away. If he has a responsibility to care for his parents then his siblings have an equal responsibility (if not more since they are in a financial position to do so). Let the family know that you intend to move out and to no longer be primary care for the parents. Do what you can to help yourselves get in a position where you can live on your own. You've taken several steps to do that already, which is good.

I think, given your description, that the hardest part will be convincing your partner that his responsibility is to take care of himself first and his parents second.
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:38 PM on August 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

Both of you stop paying Mom immediately. She should be paying you. If she wants to throw you out based on that, let her. She won't because no one will care for her for free. All payments to care professionals for her should come from her pocket and the sibling pockets. Plus you both have tenants rights that you can lean on. Save as much as you can for an eventual move out. Why is your partner only being paid for 15 hours a week? It sounds like he's working 80+. Fix that ASAP. Build a nest egg and get out. Both of you. This sounds abusive.
posted by quince at 9:05 PM on August 18, 2017 [43 favorites]

I'm helping a friend of a friend who needs 24/7 care, and have a close friend who cares 24/7 for someone who's immobile. Full-time care is very costly, very very costly - very much more costly than room and board. So as others have pointed out, L's mother should be paying him and you for the care you provide. If that cannot be arranged you should and must move on as you are both being abused.
posted by anadem at 9:35 PM on August 18, 2017 [8 favorites]

This is really a hard situation. I kind of understand this from all angles - we've had similar situations in my own family.

I don't know your partner's cultural expectations, but at least in my own culture, the person who lives in the elderly parent's house is definitely the one who is expected to care for the elderly parent. The idea that "she should pay L" is, from my own cultural context, frankly bizarre. Like, would L then be responsible for paying his mother for the 18 years of child-raising she provided? At least in my own cultural setup, the idea that one family member would be paying another for the necessary care that is provided is kind of 'the aliens are talking'.

However, at the same time, L isn't living with his mother because he's well and stable and able to take care of her easily - if he has his own mental health challenges, it sounds like he's the least able to take care of his mother. At the same time, if the siblings were going to take care of the mother, they would probably encourage her to sell her house, and so L would be homeless. If he only makes about 400$ a month, that's not enough to pay for an apartment.

You said it's "bullshit" that the other siblings wouldn't be able to pay several thousand dollars a month for live-in care. Do they really make that much money? That's an enormous amount of cash - even assuming conservatively you meant like "6000$", that's 72,000$ a year. I wouldn't expect anyone I knew to be able to come up with that kind of money on the fly, even leaving cultural considerations aside. Even if they split it evenly, that's still roughly 25,000$ apiece.

You mention that L has a social worker. Is she helping with career counseling? What does she suggest or say about this? Is L supposed to be moving towards independent living or is it understood that he won't be able to manage that?
posted by corb at 9:47 PM on August 18, 2017 [27 favorites]

I appreciate that your partner feels an obligation to take care of his mother. I do not think you are going to convince him otherwise. It all comes down to defining what taking care of your mother means. Is it financial? Emotional? Physical? Day to day care? You and your partner are in a position for it to be everything BUT financial. Where does the approximately $2,000 that your partners mother gets every month go? Is there a mortgage on the house? Is it paying utilities, groceries and everyday living expenses? Who has control over her finances? Literally who has control over the checkbook or the bank account? What would happen to your partner's mother if you both moved out or god forbid something happened to him? Who would care for her? Who would pay for the care? What happens to you if something happens to your partner so that he can no longer perform his caring function? Are you out on the street?

The only way to solve all these problems is through a sitdown with the siblings and mother. The only time you should do that is AFTER you are on your way or have reached financial independence. That is the only way you can negotiate or discuss this on a level playing field with the siblings. Right now you are indentured servants, but what are your alternatives? Create your own alternatives either through finding more higher paying work, or finding social services that can support you both.

The problem as I see it, is even if you are morally right here, you have no way to force anyone else to agree without being able to walk.
posted by AugustWest at 10:02 PM on August 18, 2017 [9 favorites]

Aside from the question of who owes what, one thing to consider is your partner's financial future. If or when his mother dies, will he still be employable? Will he have enough years to save for retirement? Or is he going to find himself completely broke late in life? What, if anything, would his siblings do for him in this case? (Something to talk about with them, as it's a probable situation.)
posted by trig at 12:34 AM on August 19, 2017 [9 favorites]

(I wrote the above about your partner but it strikes me that unless you have additional resources, you need to think seriously about your own financial future too.)
posted by trig at 1:40 AM on August 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think working to get L on disability (and would you maybe be eligible yourself?) would likely be extremely helpful, as it could not only provide more money but also open some support networks for him (e.g., he might be eligible for in-home support for himself). It might also increase the number of hours he/you could be paid for caring for his mother -- it's possible the agency that said she needs only 15 hours of care calculated that based on her having her assumed-able son living with her full-time, and if he's basically got the paperwork saying "No, I need help myself," the agency might do some new calculations on what she's entitled to. (Again, same if they're factoring you into the equation.)

Does your town/county/state have a local Area Agency on Aging? (Google your town/city/state and "agency on aging.") They may also have some resources, or be able to point you toward others who could help.
posted by lazuli at 7:38 AM on August 19, 2017

Response by poster: We are already working with our local Agency on Aging. They were the ones who determined L's mom was only eligible for 15 hours. I called about getting a redetermination but haven't heard back and need to keep calling them. I don't think I'm eligible for disability myself since I have a long work history and a recent med adjustment helped with some of the mental health symptoms I have (depression, anxiety, and ADHD). I just need a job that's a good fit, and those are hard to find when you're in a creative field and don't have the attention span for retail.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 9:09 AM on August 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I come from a culture where taking care of an elderly parent is expected, and I don't think it's bizarre to expect some money from the mother, especially if the mother's monthly income is more than them combined. I agree with Quince. By 'she should be paying you,' I don't think they mean that the mother pays L for work or to be there, but rather the mother shouldn't be taking all their money, and perhaps giving L an allowance for grocery shopping, and the things related to her care. If she wants to eat organic, etc. If she can't do the shopping herself, and she wants to (not needs to) eat a certain way, she should be the majority contributor. The way it's worded, it seems that L and OP often foot the bill for this, plus rent, utilities, etc, with some grudging assistance from siblings for some of it.

I feel like, at its very root, there is a bunch of shaming here, because your partner didn't live up to expectations and had to move back home. And mental illness has such a prevailing stigma. This makes him a 'failure' and now they are guilting him to no end for it. I feel he gets very little gratitude and understanding. Including from the mother. He believes it, because society tells us if we're not successful and we don't pay our own way, we are burdensome, leechers and moochers. Doesn't matter in the ways he's contributing, it doesn't matter that he's working full time to care for her, essentially-- all of that is invisible, because he's not making money. It's really f-d up, actually.

I feel like this is a really bad situation for you both. This kind of guilt will turn into learned helplessness for L, he will internalize all the bad feelings his family has of him (it seems he does this already) and he will think he has no way out of this situation because of it. If this happens, then he will believe he is a burden, and a failure, and his mental illness will spiral out of control repeatedly, and that's bad for everyone.

That said, there's not a lot of avenues. The only way to truly stop this negative cycle is to move out, and organize a carer for the mother with the other siblings. I understand that isn't really feasible, but, what did you do prior to meeting partner? Where did you live? You've only been together two years. Is it possible to go back to where you were? I guarantee that living dirt cheap in even a small house with a bunch of roommates is better than the current situation, just because of the psychological burden he's (and by extension you) are enduring. For his, and your mental health, this is probably the best option.

Since that option is probably not viable, though, then the alternative is that he has to try and gain some self esteem and set really firm boundaries. Firstly, regarding her care. First of all, it's worth actually sitting down, and writing down everything he does, and how long it takes him. Like, print out one of those planner diaries with the hourly day set-ups, and get a red and blue pen. In red pen, he colors in every hour he is taking care of his mother, and a note to what he does. In blue pen, he colors in all his 'free' time. Color in every day for a typical week's work. At the end, you'll find, that it'll probably be almost all red. It's one thing to know that intellectually--it's another thing to have your week there in front of you in red and blue. This isn't just to show siblings and mom, it's also for him-- to help him realize just how much he dedicates to this, and how it needs to change. And then he shows his siblings, and his mom, and he says-- "I love mom, and I want to take care of her, but this can't be 80% red any more, because mental health reasons. I need help, and it needs to change." I mean, this may not help, if the siblings are as selfish as they seem, but it's worth a try as the status quo isn't working out anyway. It's also worth figuring out her needs vs her wants. Since you say she wakes him in the night, how much of her care is her needing supervision vs her wanting company? Calling him for weird noises or bad dreams just has to stop. Once you figure out her needs vs her wants, you sit down, and re-color the planner in a way that would be more viable for your partner, and you start working towards that. The second thing is try and gain some self esteem, and mentally reverse the 'pecking order' and not let himself be guilted into contributing if he is financially unable to. $400 a month means he is financially unable to. The money you guys contribute, should be proportionate to what you are all making combined. This is not a 'me vs you,' thing like a 'you're a burden who mooched off mom for years, this is what you get thing,' it's 'we're a family unit and we take care of each other, and we're in it together,' thing. Unfortunately, you can't change people's minds to see it this way. Yes, your food and his food should be coming out of your money, yes, some shared utilities etc. But the mom's food should be 100% be paid by her or alternatively the other siblings. If she wants organic fruit, and she doesn't give you money for it, then she gets the stuff you guys can get with food stamps. I know it sucks and is awful for your partner, but he really needs to stop catering to mom in this way. Her money should be partly going to a day or night carer, because without that, her son will have another break and no one will be there for her. Ultimately, if you guys weren't there, she'd still need to pay for the place herself, and the food herself, and the other siblings would contribute a lot more. She'd need a carer, etc. Every time he feels guilty, he needs to think of that: That without him there, his mother cannot live the way she lives.

I think you're off to a good start with the disability etc. Is partner totally unable to work? Is it possible for him to find a different kind of job? I think even getting out of the house to do something easy and mundane would be good for him, because it lets him get distance from everything and de-stress. I don't say it because of the money, but because it gives him an excuse to not always take care of mother.

I think it may be worth getting some resources on setting boundaries and such for him, and raising self esteem. A CBT or DBT book may help with this. I know that David Burns wrote a Self Esteem book, though I haven't read it and don't know if it's any good, I have read his other CBT book, Feeling Good, and that is a good book, and I think it's a good start in the absence of a therapist.

I hope I helped somewhat. This is a difficult and tough situation, and I wish you and your partner the best.
posted by Dimes at 9:57 AM on August 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

This is very sad. I think the important takeaway for YOU is that you need to focus on your own pathway. You've asked prior questions about how to make money and work challenges. Now rightfully you are overwhelmed from following that goal because of all of that other stuff.

There are certain facts that you should remember in my opinion, as you proceed.

1) You can not change how this family functions around money. As an outsider, you have no leverage over the siblings. As you know.

2) You can't change your partner. This is a subtler one because you have an emotional relationship, but you can push and push and push, yet there is no explanation you can provide of the situation that will change how he relates to his family. It's tempting to try! Please don't scratch that itch.

3) You have control over you, and shouldn't give away your money. Ultimately, if these people didn't perceive a need for you, they would kick you out in a second. There is an aspect of love and care in taking care of a sick person of course. I'd just enjoy the good you are doing to society, to some extent. You can be cooperative without feeling like a doormat and you should be proud of yourself. But don't sink emotional energy into this situation.

Yeah, this is temporary I guess. I think you are sort of trapped and need to just relax every muscle. You can love your partner but pretty much anything you do to alter others' reactions in this situation will just inflame it and make it worse for you. Don't fight for your partner, don't advocate for a new balance in the family. Get your focus on making money.

I'd abandon the potential to be a paid caretaker in the family immediately, this is exactly the type of struggle that's going to overload your plate.

But on the converse side, apparently this is a skill that you are good at so maybe it's worth looking into doing it professionally?
posted by benadryl at 3:05 PM on August 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

The problem is that the system is working for everyone else except for you and your partner and they feel justified in their position. So, any appeal based on logic or fairness isn't going to work. To set and enforce reasonable boundaries, you have to be prepared for their pushback - this becomes a game of brinksmanship - you give them a choice between a mildly bad opinion that you can both live with or a terrible option that will hurt both sides and make it clear that it is their choice - staying with the status quo is not an option.

So, in my mind, a reasonable choice is to a calculation that says:
L works 15 hours a week for pay
L works x hours a week in exchange for a place both of you to live
L works y hours a week because he loves his mother, wants to contribute to her care and to pay her back for the helping him when needed.

!5+x+y is less than 100% of the hours in the day. The family needs to find another resource to cover the difference. I like an adult day program it gets her out of the house - which is good for her cognitive and social well being - and allows you to be in the house without being guilted about not taking care of her. It is also cheaper than bring in paid staff.

Second, since you are already making your contribution to the family via labor, you will both stop giving mother any money at all. She will need to spend out of her income for food etc. If there is not enough to cover mortgage, taxes and upkeep on the house then the family should figure out what to do about that.

This seems very reasonable to me and, hopefully to you. But first your partner has to buy into the idea that it is reasonable and he can stand behind it and be clear in his mind that what he is asking for right and fair. Finally, he can't sell to the family unless it is also clear that if they can't work with him on this, he will stop doing anything more than 15 hours a week and then prepared for them to be angry and insulting and possibly kick him out.

Being prepared means knowing what you will do instead. Do you fight eviction? What are your rights? What would it take to find a room to rent for the two of you? I would hope that the family would give in since what he is offering a much deal than they could find elsewhere but their first choice is going to be do what always worked - insult and browbeat him until he just does it their way.

On further thought, "family" is never a monolith. Have him think about who in the family might be somewhat supportive and open to reasonable compromise. If he can get someone on his side, it will be a big help in dealing with everyone else.
posted by metahawk at 10:44 AM on August 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think L's disability pay might be less because they assume he is getting free room and board for his family. In this case, it might go up if he moves out - worth asking.
posted by metahawk at 10:46 AM on August 20, 2017

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