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Be kind but firm about mother's place in family's life

Carol Bursack of Minding Our Elders

Dear Carol: My mom had a small stroke six months ago. She's always had a controlling, manipulative personality. After her stroke, she announced that she was moving in with us during rehab because she didn't want to hire strangers to help her at home, so I let her. Now, she's fully recovered but she's settled in. The doctor says that there is no cognitive damage. We need our home back. She constantly criticizes the kids, and my husband is so stressed that he's ready to walk out. We've kept Mom's apartment, so she could go back there or she could move to assisted living if she chooses. She needs to get back with her friends and her previously active life for all of our sakes. I know that I need to stand up to her, but I never have and now it seems impossible. What do I do? — Mary Sue

Dear Mary Sue: You grew up giving in to your mom's strong, manipulative personality so I can see how difficult this is for you. However, your marriage is at risk, as is your children's relationship with their grandmother. As you already know, you must learn to stand up to your mom, but your immediate problem needs addressing now.

First, consider that even after recovering from a stroke a person can still feel fragile, so underneath your mother's bluster, she may actually be frightened to live alone. Since she was active and had friends before the stroke, you could contact some of these friends and ask if they can arrange social outings with your mom. Getting out with friends could help give her back some of the confidence she may have lost and encourage her to return to her home so that she has more independence.

If this gentle approach doesn't work, then arrange a family meeting so that you can decide together how to move forward. You'll need to have your husband there to back you up. If the kids are old enough and want to be included, that's fine, but only if they want to. A third party, such as your mother's religious leader, could serve to smooth out the family dynamics and keep a lid on anger. Hiring a social worker or family mediator to sit in on the meeting is another possibility.

Be kind but firm. Let your mom choose between going back to her apartment or looking for a new place in an assisted living center, making it clear that you want to help and this is the best way for her to maintain independence. Underscore that you want to see her happy and healthy.

For the long-term, you need to break your habit of constantly giving in to your mom. Such a big change can be hard to do on your own, so I'd suggest that you seek out a professional counselor to help you learn to cope. Somehow, you've got to decide where your mother's proper place is in your life.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at She can be reached at