When I first became a quadriplegic, one of the greatest gifts someone gave me was coming into my hospital room and saying: “I have no idea what you are going through. Please tell me.”
I thought about that story when I read the following two letters.
Dear Dr. Gottlieb: I am writing about my aging moody mother who is 80. Her behavior has become rude and offensive and I have been on the receiving end more than once. I know there is nothing I can say or do to change her because she thinks she is doing nothing wrong and therefore has no desire to change. I feel that this relationship will never be “fixed” as long as we are both alive. I sometimes feel as if I’m being torn apart inside by angry feelings which make me question what kind of person I really am. Do I completely give up hope of ever having a peaceful solution to this relationship?
When she is gone, I will feel a deep sense of sadness and anger for the way she has chosen to live her life and for the way it has influenced mine. I feel a sense of loss for the mother I never had. I know that I need to accept her and not try to change her, but I can’t give up the hope that some day….
-Looking for Peace
Dear Looking for Peace: Almost every time we are engaged in a long-term struggle, we are fighting a losing battle. And that’s actually good news. Surprisingly (as with most domestic issues), the path to peace follows loss, not victory. And what is the loss? In your case, it is a loss of hope, the hope that you said you “can’t give up.”
All these years you have clung to the hope that this relationship would perhaps be one you have always envisioned. To find peace, you have to be willing to be in a relationship with the mother you have, as opposed to working to create the mother you want. This is the battle that you have lost. Realizing that you lost it could be the beginning of the peace you seek.
Part of the battle, too, is about your own self-esteem. I am sure you know by now that your self-esteem comes from your accomplishments, not your mother’s approval. It will come from your acts of kindness, your understanding. If you think about it, your unhappiness in this relationship comes from two sources: your mother’s behavior and your reaction to her behavior.
Clearly you cannot change her behavior. But you can change your own. In that regard, your relationship with your mother could become a source of esteem for you.
Now, here’s a stretch – give your mother everything you have always wanted from her. Give her the nurturing, kindness, understanding and gentle care that you have been hoping for. It’s going to be difficult. Changing any behavior that has lasted years usually is.
It might also be easier if you understood your mother better. Here’s another letter I received this week.
Dr. Gottlieb: I was wondering if you have any recommendations about dealing with an elderly relative who is negative about everything and prides herself on being stubborn to a detriment. She will argue a point about something that is absolutely wrong (just to receive attention, I’m assuming) – for instance, her need to increase calcium intake as recommended by her physician. Her reasoning: “I’ve had plenty of opportunities to break a bone and it hasn’t happened yet. I have strong bones.”
My humble theory is that she has low self-esteem and has been scripted with the belief that any attention is good, regardless of the outcome. Thank you in advance for any help in understanding her.
Dear Reader: You may be wrong with several of your assumptions. I doubt that your mother prides herself on being stubborn. Nobody enjoys that. I also don’t think that she is seeking attention so desperately that she invites negative attention. Nobody enjoys that either.
Try to look at the world through her eyes. As she ages, she grows smaller and the world seems much bigger. She moves more slowly and her world moves more rapidly. To grow old is to slowly lose control. If you listen to seniors talk to one another, you will inevitably hear stories of loss of hair, teeth, bladder control, sexual function, and life itself.
Typically, when people feel out of control, they get more rigid, and control what they can (such as whether to take calcium supplements).
Another consideration: If your relative tends to be negative about everything, she may very well be depressed. Depression runs rampant among our seniors, and too many doctors consider it a normal part of aging. It is not. It is a serious illness that needs treatment.
If you truly want to understand her, ask about her world with genuine curiosity. Perhaps you will both benefit.