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How mom looks in public unfairly comes back on the caregiver

In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol hears from a reader who says it's not their fault that their mother is so strangely dressed.

Carol Bradley Bursack updated column sig for online 10-21-19.jpg
Carold Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
The Forum

Dear Carol: Mom suffers from memory loss so we’re working on getting her evaluated. She’s always had an eccentric sense of style but what she wore looked intentional if not conventional. Some admired her individuality while others thought she was strange, but that was fine. She knew what she was doing.

What she wants to wear now is downright bizarre. I fight to have her wear weather-appropriate clothing so anything beyond that won’t happen. She will wear what she wants. I worry about her dignity, though, and I also get tired of looks from her friends that seem to question my caregiving. It’s not my fault that she is strangely dressed. Why are people so judgmental? — GH.

Dear GH: Oh my, this is challenging, not so much because it matters what she’s wearing if she likes it, but because you are feeling at least the perceived judgment of the looks she’s bound to attract — and that does hurt.

Since you’re just beginning this caregiver journey, I’ll let you know upfront that you’ll have to grow impervious to the judgment of people who haven’t been in your shoes. I’ll note, though, that some of these people could be current or past caregivers and their looks are actually sent in sympathy. So, try not to internalize the feeling that everyone who notices is judging you negatively.

Maybe you can take heart knowing that on social media we see older women who have become famous for their outrageous sense of style. Their admirers say that this is who they want to be when they get old.

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Back in the real world, though. If your mom were further into dementia, you might be able to pick a couple of things for her to choose from and she’d be fine with that, but that’s not the case. Choosing your battles is the way forward, which you are doing by insisting on weather-appropriate clothing which is about safety and health. Other than that, you may be stuck with letting her express her creativity in the way she dresses — even if it’s off-the-charts wild.

That means you’ll have to develop thicker skin, but thicker skin will be useful throughout caregiving. It’s either that or be in constant agony worrying about what others will say or think. I’ve frequently asked people to stop judging what they don’t understand, but I’m afraid my making that statement won’t make much difference overall. Judgment based on extremely limited information is a common occurrence.

You could make some subtle suggestions to your mom about a certain combination that would be “fun and creative,” but she doesn’t sound receptive, at least for now. Your energy may be better spent simply accepting the fact that your mother’s sense of style makes you want to hide when you are out with her. You already know that you’ll face much larger battles before this is done.

Welcome to the world of caregiving, GH. Many of us do understand your inner cringing and are sending you understanding hugs.

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.

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