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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published March 23 2013

Minding Our Elders: Husband won’t accept wife’s help caring for his mother

DEAR CAROL: After my mother-in-law had a stroke, she developed mild dementia. My husband and I were able to take care of her needs until recently, but because of her deteriorating health she has been admitted to a facility near our home. She is really very content. This should be a cause to celebrate, but since her admission my husband has become overwhelmed and stubborn. He neglects the paperwork that he needs to do for his mother’s care until it piles up and we get phone calls that could threaten her stay at the nursing home. I’ve repeatedly told him that I’ll help with the paperwork, but he won’t allow me to touch it. He won’t even let me relieve him of some responsibility by visiting his mother in his place. He works very long days, yet he feels he has to see her every night. We can’t even have a civil conversation, which is entirely unlike him. What do I do? – Sharon

DEAR SHARON: Your husband may view placing his mother in a nursing home as a failure on his part, which in turn can lead to feelings of guilt and even depression. While he’s no doubt aware that he’s not keeping up with the paperwork, and you sincerely want to help, he seems to be viewing your offers to assist him as criticism for not caring for his mother’s needs well enough.

You could gently suggest counseling, which would be ideal. However, if he refuses, which I suspect is likely at this point, you could try altering your approach to see if that helps. By altering your approach, I mean that you may have to back off and let him try to handle the problems on his own for awhile.

While there may be unpleasant consequences if your husband continues to let paperwork pile up, the world won’t end. It may take something semi-dramatic, such as more insistent calls about neglected bills, for your husband to understand that accepting assistance doesn’t mean he’s not a good son.

Hopefully, if left to his own devices, he will eventually become less defensive. If you see this happening, you could make a small offer by saying, “Would you like me to fill this out while you’re at work and then you can sign it? If we work as a team, we’ll get through it more quickly.”

Approach the matter lightly or he may withdraw again. No matter what you do to cope with this situation, he’s likely to need time to accept the fact that letting you and others help with his mom is not a weakness. I think it would be good for you to see a counselor on your own to get help in handling this situation. It’s even possible that if you go to a counselor yourself he may eventually see the wisdom of asking for advice and agree to go, as well.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.