Dear Therapist:

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease 3 years ago. This is devastating for the entire family to say the least. We are very worried about my mother. She herself is getting on in age and she spends her whole day busy taking care of my father. We are worried for her health and her sanity. We offer as a family to have some of the kids or grand-kids take over and give her a break but she almost always refuses. She seems to have the singular purpose of just taking care of him and doesn't want to hear of anything else. Of course we understand how much she loves him and wants to take care of him but how can we prevent her from hurting herself?



Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia can indeed be devastating for those afflicted with them, and for their families. In addition to the emotional impact, caregiving can become a continual concern. For some, caring for a family member is a burden. For others, it is something that they want to do despite the hardships inherent in this labor of love. For yet others, caring for a beloved family member can become a driving force in their lives.

As people age, their perspectives often change. Goals and interests can look very different from those that they previously had (and from those of others). Reasons for—and results of—these changes can be positive or negative (or a bit of both), and can be consciously and/or unconsciously driven.

I wonder if your mother’s purpose in life was shaken by your father’s diagnosis and mental deterioration. If, for instance, her purpose was largely based on the equal relationship between your father and her, she may be scrambling to redefine her life purpose. This could have led to her need to care for your father as a part of her new purpose in life. Following this example, this need could be largely based on a conscious decision (usually more positive and fulfilling)…or it could have been mainly unconsciously driven (sometimes problematic).

Pragmatically speaking, what does your mother emotionally gain in caring for your father—and what does she lose? At different points in time, has this balance changed? She may have more answers to these questions, and more insight into her feelings, than you give her credit for. Have you had any conversations with her about the reasons for her seemingly single-minded focus on your father’s health and care? If you were to have such a conversation, perhaps some of her responses would be eye-opening for you.

Perhaps you have had these types of conversations, and you have a clear sense that your mother’s actions are unhealthy (again often partly because they are unconsciously driven). Practically speaking, is there anything that you can do to help your mother understand your perspective and concerns? If you encourage your mother to share with you her feelings and goals, she will likely be more open to hearing your concerns. If you can’t get her to see things from your perspective, slowly involving her in other interests and aspects of your family—and slowly involving others in her life—can help her to incorporate others into your father’s care.


Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317



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