HELP LINE: No right or wrong answer in this situation

IN A COLUMN not too long ago, I went on about Mom and how often the kids will, out of love, attempt to change Mom’s life.

I also noted that often, Mom will live down to those expectations and become mom.

Then I said: “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.”

Then, this from a reader:

“Dear Mark,

“You said you expected to hear from children of home-alone elders, and here’s your first comment.

“My parent is past 90, can scarcely see, hears only when shouted at, is confused about what day or hour it is, has fallen several times and refuses to leave her home. Valiant? Yes. Sensible? No.

“What am I supposed to do? Don’t suggest a family conference — I’m it. Consult her doctor? Can’t get through to him, even after several attempts. Bring in help? She has someone three hours a day and complains about them constantly.

“I’m past 70 and can’t afford the sleep I’m losing, nor the anxiety I’m experiencing.

“Suggestions are welcome, but your column today was discouraging. I’d like to persuade this once-sociable woman to move where there are potential friends, activities she might enjoy, palatable food and 24-hour attention when needed.”


Sound familiar to you? It does to me, and here’s my response: I, too, hope that you’re able to persuade Mom to go.

Does it sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth?

I am, and here’s why: In this kind of situation, there are no pat answers that are always right, nor are the kids always wrong.

I will always come down supporting independence, and for reasons that all of you have probably heard way too many times, but in this instance, I hope Mom agrees.

I hope Mom will be able to see past her own stubbornness — and her own fear — to see what’s in her own best interests and the best interests of a daughter who obviously loves her.

And to the reader: Look for ways to take the fear away, e.g., “just try it for a few months,” etc., if at all possible, and please remember that killing yourself won’t help your Mom. And I’ll hope that Mom will realize the same thing.

Because love is supposed to be a two-way street. And that’s a very easy thing to forget.

It’s an easy thing to forget if you’re frail, and you know it.

Or if the end is within sight, and you can look around at your home and your stuff — a place that you’ve probably been for a very long time — and you think about having to leave it all, go someplace new.

Even the packing is overwhelming. And, of course, it isn’t just stuff: It’s the memories, icons and totems of our lives. So many things that mean so many things.

“And now I’m supposed to just pack it up (or give it away or sell it or watch it be hauled off or …) and move, so I can die in a strange place?”

Well, that’s what it could feel like, and often does.

“I have a right.”

“I took care of you, now you can just …”

That kind of a situation, especially when you’re alone a lot and become accustomed to listening to the echoes of your own thoughts, can turn a person inward: Me. It’s about me.

I’m afraid. And I don’t want to die.

I don’t blame you.

And often (as the kids), we’re so intent upon making it be about them that we never mention us — what’s happening to us in the course of trying to take care of you.

If life were easy, anyone could do it.

No pat answers, no formulas, no recipes.

No absolute right or absolute wrong.

Just people trying to make it be OK, trying to remember that love is supposed to be a two-way street.

And that life is usually what we choose to make of it.

Some years back, I had a conversation with a very loving daughter in a very similar situation.

She wanted to make things be OK for the mom she loved so much.

She wanted her to be safe. And she had tried everything. And everything wasn’t working.

“But she could die in that house.”

“Yes,” I said, “she could. Where do you want to die?”

Sometimes, there’s just nothing else to say.


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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