HELP LINE: Elder women don’t have to ‘cave’ to their children

I HAD PLANNED to talk a bit more about Alzheimer’s disease in today’s column, but something else came up.

It’s something that comes up every now and again.

It’s something from a local elder that looks a lot like this:

“Hi, Mark. It has come to my attention, just in the last few days, that some single, senior women are being forced by their family members to leave their house or apartment.

“Never mind that they have been functioning quite well there for the past few years — not setting fire to the drapes, burning their food or tripping over their dog or cat.

“If the woman has any significant amount of money, or assets, the plot thickens.

“I was just talking with a friend at the senior center yesterday. Her children have decided that she should no longer drive (no accidents or backing into posts, etc.) and that she should come and live with them.

She doesn’t want to.

“I’m sure, among the plethora of agencies, etc., on the Peninsula which provide assistance for seniors in so many ways, there must be an advocacy group — or someone — to help protect the rights of women in these situations.”

Doesn’t have to do anything

Let me begin by going to the end: Family members have no legal authority to make Mom do anything she doesn’t want to do.

The end.

Even a power of attorney, a durable power of attorney or a full guardianship can’t make Mom start, stop or move if Mom doesn’t want to start, stop or move.

In fact, a doctor’s “order,” prescription or advice is equally meaningless if Mom says the magic word.

And do we know what the “magic word” is?

It’s “no.”

Now, here’s the rest of the story: Mom almost never says “No.”

She’ll “hmm,” “ha,” stall, say she’ll “think about it” and not answer the phone, but when it comes right down to it, Mom almost always caves in.

Maybe Mom caves out of love and loyalty to her children, to “keep peace in the family.”

Or maybe she decides that her help and/or her money really could help “the poor dears,” so what’s a mother to do?

Or maybe she caves just so all the pressure will stop.

Or maybe she caves in — agrees to start, stop or move — because secretly, in her heart of hearts, she suspects that they’re right.

And maybe they are.

Have you ever been in a situation or needed to get something done when you knew darned good and well that you needed help but you were too proud to ask for it?

Don’t lie to me. You have, too — and so have I.


Because we’re stupid?

Don’t want to feel like less

Well, maybe, but more likely it was because we didn’t want to admit that we couldn’t do it alone, because that makes us feel less: less capable, less independent, less effective, less able to manage an unmanageable world, less young.

And we don’t like that, so we don’t ask and we usually suffer the consequences of our pride.

So it goes on planet Earth.

But flip that coin and be the kids:

This is Mom.

All-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful and always able to handle it.

Until she isn’t.

Or they think she isn’t.

Maybe it was a fall or one silly mistake or one forgotten medical appointment or one too many physical complaints on the phone.

And here they come to rescue Mom. Just like Mom rescued them a million times.

“She took care of me, so I’ll take care of her!” Charge.

And they descend on the situation — on Mom — like a bat out of handbasket land.

To the rescue.

Help strikes again.

Yes, sadly, sometimes it’s about greed or control or revenge.

Or maybe it’s just that the kids are busy people with families of their own who don’t have time to fool around with Mom half a world away, so just come be here where I can keep an eye on you.

So Mom caves.

Now, if it really is about abuse, exploitation, etc., there are legal resources that can be brought to bear rather suddenly.

But happily, it rarely is.

Mom just caved, and she would have caved even if I’d been standing next to her screaming at the kids about her “legal rights” and blah blah blah, because it isn’t about legal rights.

It’s about families.

So Mom caves.

Will Mom be safer if she starts, stops, moves or does whatever else the kids want?

Hmm. … Maybe.


Love is often about safe, and, sometimes, that really is what needs to happen, particularly if there are issues around potential dementia, memory loss, etc., but the fact is that everybody 60 or older isn’t demented and isn’t going to be.

So Mom caves and proceeds to start, stop or move, and at that exact moment, she stops being “Mom” and becomes … mom: the one who can’t take care of herself.

The one who needs to be taken care of, and she will live down to that expectation, because that’s now how she sees herself.

Mom gave up

Mom didn’t just “cave,” my friends; she “gave up,” and we all know where it’s going to go from there.

What will happen next is that I’m going to hear from a lot of the kids about how whatever they did/are doing/wish they could do/tried to do was the “right thing to do,” and I won’t argue about any of it, because it’s not my place to say.

And in all likelihood, they’re right.

I can only hope that this will be one of the times when safe was worth it.

Goodbye, Mom.


Mark Harvey is director of Clallam/Jefferson Senior Information & Assistance, which operates through the Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He is also a member of the Community Advocates for Rural Elders partnership. He can be reached at 360-452-3221 (Port Angeles-Sequim), 360-385-2552 (Jefferson County) or 360-374-9496 (West End), or by emailing [email protected].

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