Dear Carol: My mother has been in an assisted living facility (ALF) for years. She readily made friends and her apartment is lovely, so she's always been active and happy there. Mother's physically healthy and the staff says that she does very well overall. Of course, she’s been less happy during the changes due to COVID-19, but the staff works hard to keep her occupied by providing extra one-on-one time as well as other entertainment.
Even so, when she talks to me on the phone or we do video chats, all she does is complain and tell me that if I loved her, I’d have her live with me. This isn’t new behavior, by the way — it's been her routine for years. The whole idea of living together is a joke because we’d both hate it after five minutes. Mother’s always controlled everyone through complaining, but dealing with her behavior is beginning to affect my own mental health more as time goes on. — GY.
Dear GY: It’s natural that this is affecting your mental health. You’ve been listening to your mother’s complaints for years and it’s even worse now with the isolation factor of COVID-19. Why wouldn’t it wear you down?
You have an advantage compared with many caregivers in that your mother has lived in this ALF for some time and she has been happy there. Yes, there’s a strain now, but it sounds as though the staff is doing their best to help alleviate her loneliness. When/if you worry or feel guilty, remind yourself that overall, she’s fine.
You didn’t indicate whether or not your mother has dementia or if she has a mental illness. Since she has always been a complainer, this could just be her personality, but perhaps not entirely. To help you understand the difference, you could talk with her primary physician in case some testing should be done. Remember, though, that no matter what you do, you can’t change your mother’s personality. Most likely she will always be a complainer.
There’s a strong movement to find more ways for families to connect with parents and spouses in facilities without increasing the risk for COVID infections. Additionally, some facilities are working on creating a method where isolated residents deemed free of the virus can gather in small groups. We can hope that this will happen in your mother’s ALF, for your sake as well as hers. More socialization won’t stop her complaining, but it might help lessen it.
It's important for you to understand that if your mother’s behavior continues to cause you intense emotional pain, you probably should seek counseling for yourself.
The bottom line is that even if your mother's living situation normalizes somewhat, you probably can’t change her tendency to complain. Therefore, you will need to work on yourself to learn how to cope with her manipulating personality in ways that will prevent her from destroying your own happiness. Take care of yourself and the rest will be easier to handle.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.