Tough Love for Seniors


by Bob Kohut

If you have had the experience of dealing with a difficult aging parent, as I have, maybe you have spent time reflecting back on failed attempts in interacting with your mom or dad in an attempt to figure out what you could have done differently.  Hardly a day goes by when I don’t look backward in time and wonder what might have happened if only I had done something different.

I was thinking about this not too long ago when I ran across a response to a blog comment from a daughter who was being emotionally abused by her aging mother who now lived with her.  The respondent suggested a geriatric counselor or a family physician since it is so difficult to “just say no” to your parent.

It occurred to me that “just saying no” is one of the characteristics of the “tough love” approach to dealing with difficult children.  As I understand it the core principle of tough love is to set boundaries or standards and then stick to them.  If it works with children, why wouldn’t it work with difficult seniors?

I’d like to share two experiences with you from my own situation that suggest it might.

My mother insisted on living alone long past the time when it was unsafe to do so.  Between my brother and my young adult sons we made a lot of trips to her condominium.  One of her favorite activities was a trip to her a local restaurant for lunch or an early dinner.  But like many seniors, she had lost the ability to refrain from saying inappropriate things in public.  When she shouted across the dining room, “Boy are you fat” at an obese customer across the way, I was dumbstruck.  I didn’t know what to do as I was firmly grounded in the “I am still the child, she is still the parent” syndrome.

I vaguely remember stammering along with some platitudes about the feelings of others but it didn’t do much because she did it again the next time we took her out.  This time, however, my oldest son was with me.  On the way home he asked me why I didn’t scold her.  I tried to explain but he blurted out that if she acted like a child, I should treat her like a child and be firm with her.

I later learned that the first time he took her out on his own and she asked a customer at the next table why she was so fat, he took her softly by the hands, looked into her eyes, and told her if she ever did that again while she was with him, he wouldn’t take her out to eat anymore.  Then he asked her if she understood him.  He told me her lower lip began to quiver and her mouth turned into a little pout, but she was able to respond that she understood what he meant.  She never did that again.

What he had done was set a boundary for her he expected her not to cross.  I thought about that on the day I finally had to go over to see her to let her know she no longer could live alone.  She had thrown three different part-time caregivers out and fired the one live-in we had managed to get her to accept.  But we were getting concerned calls from residents in her building about her leaving the burners on her stove on and filling the halls with smoke and wandering around the halls not knowing where she was.

We had tried reasoning with her many times in the past about the need for her to move in with me or my brother, but to no avail.  She was 93 years old and still on her own.  I thought about my son’s experience and realized in past attempts we had always “asked” her about moving out and used the kind of rational arguments adults understand.  This time I knew I had to tell her, but I didn’t know how.

So I relied on my understanding that the older some people get, the more cherished their memories become.  She had sold the family home thirty years prior when she felt it was time for a change and it had worked out beautifully.  When I saw her I reminded her of that old move and said it was time for a change again.  I told her about the calls and that I was searching for an assisted living center where she could start the next phase of her life.  And she listened and agreed that it was indeed a time for a change!

I spent a week and finally found the right place.  The day I was to go over to pick her up I called to see if she was ready and I could tell from her voice she had had a stroke.  That night in the hospital she had another from which the doctors told us she would never recover, but four days later she did.

I wish I had a happy ending to my tale but I don’t.  We transferred her to a nursing home where two weeks later she had her third and final stroke.  A week later she died in hospice care in her beloved condo.  To this day, I wonder whether a little tough love from a child to a parent might have given her a little more time with us.