Caring for a Difficult Parent

Q. Throughout my life, my mother has always been a difficult person. She complains about everything and is hyper-critical, overbearing and, as you can imagine, hard to get along with. She always compares me to my older sister, who is successful and has a big family, and berates me for being overweight and for taking ten years to finish my PhD. My therapist refers to her as “toxic,” based on the damage she has caused me emotionally.

Now, my mother is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and needs my help. My sister is too busy with her own family and lives too far away. My mother’s bad attitude and non-nurturing personality is making it a challenge now that she needs me to nurture and care for her. I love my mother, but in all honesty, I don’t like her very much. Do you have any tips for someone in my situation, who has lingering anger and resentment, but knows that helping her parent is the right thing to do?


A. Being a caregiver is never easy, but if you’ve spent much of your life at odds with your parent, being thrust into the role of her caregiver is especially difficult.

Many people in your situation feel trapped by guilt, a sense of moral obligation, and a host of other difficult emotions when it comes to aging parents who are “difficult.” So what do you do when your conscience, your relatives, social workers, and everyone else in your life lets you know that the right thing to do is to help your parent?

You can walk away from the situation, but that could cause disastrous financial consequences for you, and there are always better ways. Although it may be a challenge no matter what, your caregiving experience could be easier than you think depending on whether you’re providing daily care, occasional care, or coordinating care from a distance. The earlier you begin the process, the better. And, remember, you do not have to personally provide the care – there are Home Health companies, Adult Day Care Centers, Assisted Living Facilities, and Nursing Homes that all exist to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.

Regardless of which route you choose, hopefully the following tips will make caring for you mother a little easier:

  • Assess the situation: If the emotional ramifications are too great, consider those options that don’t place you in the role of primary caregiver. Depending on your mother’s wishes, limitations, and finances, research the appropriate options — Home Health, Assisted Living, or Nursing Care. Talk with a Certified Elder Law Attorney, such as myself, for strategies on placement and financial planning for long term care and asset protection.
  • Have a Conversation: As difficult as it may be for you, if you and your mother can maintain a reasonable conversation, ask your mother’s opinion about what kind of help, if any, would be acceptable for her. Don’t be surprised if your mother is of the opinion that everything is “just fine.” If your mother admits to needing help, you can offer to either pitch in to the degree you are able, or you can discuss the option of looking for community support for the things you are not willing to or cannot do.
  • Keep in mind that her personality might change. With certain types of dementia, life-long personalities can change drastically. I have many dementia clients whose personalities have changed from difficult to docile as a result of their dementia. Of course the reverse is also true – many people who were easy and fun-loving their whole lives become behaviorally difficult in later stages of dementia. Unfortunately, if your mother has always been critical, negative, and overbearing, it’s unlikely that simply growing older and suffering from poor health will improve her personality much. The good news is that as an adult, you’ve probably become more confident in yourself and have learned to deal with her more effectively — and if you haven’t, now is your chance to learn. Believe it or not, it’s never too late to make your relationship work more smoothly so that you can help her through this stage of life.
  • Seek help from family and friends: Whether you choose to take on the role of primary caregiver or remain as the point of contact for the care facility, get help. Try to lighten your load. Decide what you can and can’t do and delegate. Can your sister help out at all? What community resources are in the area? Adult daycare? A senior center? Meals on Wheels?
  • Connect with others and surround yourself with support: You should consider getting into a support group as soon as you start your mother’s caregiving journey. Solutions often present themselves when you surround yourself with supportive, understanding people. It helps to have others around who are going through similar situations, and it is comforting to know that your conflicting emotions are normal.
  • Take care of yourself: Be careful not to overextend yourself or neglect your own needs. Seek respite whenever you can.
  • Free yourself from guilt: Give yourself permission to feel the way you do. Vent to a close friend, an online support group, or a therapist. If you decide to make care arrangements in assisted living or somewhere other than your home or theirs, be at peace with the decision and move forward.
  • Concentrate on the caregiving tasks at hand, rather than the individual or the difficult past (or present). Don’t seek revenge in providing care — or in selecting an outside setting or professional caregiver — simply meet the needs as best you can.
  • Set boundaries and ground rules: Are there times of the day you aren’t available, except in an emergency, for calls, visits or errands? Let her know this, and don’t let her cross the boundaries. If you find your mother berating you, specify that you will hang up (if on the phone) or leave the room.

Caregiving is always emotionally and physically taxing, especially when you are caring for a difficult parent. Focus on being the bigger person; be proud of stepping up and doing the right thing despite the incredible difficulty.  And always remember, if you have kids of your own, you are modeling for them how they may take care of you someday.

At the Law Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C., we recognize that caring for a loved one, whether they are difficult or not, strains even the most resilient caregiver. If you’re a caregiver, take steps to preserve your own health and well-being.  Part of taking care of yourself is planning for your future and for the future of your parent.  Please call us at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax, at 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg, or at 202-587-2797 in Washington, D.C. to make an appointment for a consultation.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.