Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Ailing Mom

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 4, 2011

elderly care

 Tamara, fifty, is watching her mother’s slow and long decline as her mom travels in her last chapter of her life. Tamara’s mom, Thelma is eighty-eight years old and her health has been slowly declining for thirty years. She has type II diabetes, heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Her mind is good and active, but Thelma’s body betrays her more and more every decade. Her diabetes, although well controlled, seems to have caused her significant mobility problems along with problems transferring from a bed to a chair. Without limited ability to transition, Thelma is almost, although not completely bed-bound. Tamara is helpless and sad. I offer Tamara support, but the realities of Tamara’s struggle watching Thelma slowly lose functioning is heart-breaking and lonely. Sure, Tamara has siblings, three of them, but for reasons which are not clear to Tamara, they do not seem to feel sad or helpless about Thelma’s situation. They seem to take it in stride, or at least that is how Tamara perceives it. Tamara has a husband; she has been married for twenty-eight years. “He tries, but I don’t think he understands how I am feeling either,” Tamara explains to me. “And your children?” I ask, knowing that Tamara has three children between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. “They try, just like my husband, but it still feels really lonely,” Tamara persists in telling me how alone she is feeling dealing with Thelma. “What would make you feel less alone?” I ask. “If I had someone I could talk to every day about what it was like for me to visit Thelma. I mean I can talk to my husband every day but he changes the subject and that drives me nuts,” Tamara explains.  “Is there a way you can soothe yourself?” I ask, wondering if she is taking care of herself through the stress of Thelma’s decline. “Well, I am here,” she says, almost humiliating me with my question. “So, does coming here feel nurturing?” I ask, so as not to assume I know the answer, since I don’t. “Yes and no,” Tamara says. “I think you understand, but it is not like I can call and chat with you after I see my mom and sometimes I feel like I really need that,” Tamara explains. “Maybe you can tell your husband that you need him to listen better,” I say, trying to have Tamara’s support system work better for her. “That’s a lot of work to teach him to listen, but I guess I have no choice,” Tamara says with dismay. “I am sorry about your mom,” I say, implying that we have to stop soon. “Yea, thanks,” Tamara says, with a tone of appreciation and a tone of sarcasm at the same time. I wonder to myself how much Tamara has trouble taking in the support of others who really care about her. I think I will weave that into our next session, if that still makes sense. The epidemic of middle-aged folks dealing with ailing parents hits me once again. I wonder about community support systems that can help people like Tamara. I will look into that. A multi-pronged approach makes sense, yet again. It is time to bring out the big tool box.

3 Responses to “The Ailing Mom”

  1. Shelly said

    Tamara’s problem is that the people who are supposed to support her, her husband and children, are not really listening to her. Her husband cannot truly relate to her and changes the subject when she tries to express her feelings after visiting or caring for her aging mom. Her young adult children can listen, but again, not ever having had to care for aging parents, cannot understand what it is like to have to diaper or shower a parent who once diapered or showered them. The emotional gap must be huge. Community services might help, but getting her husband to truly listen might be the best place to start.

    • Yes, I agree. As with so many experiences in life, one sometimes has to go through them to truly “get” the emotional toll of the decline and eventual loss of an aging parent. Tamara’s husband may be able to do better, but as you say, it is a combination of age, experience and sensitivity which makes for deeper understanding. The other side, of course, is why Tamara cannot soothe herself. This has to be examined as well. As we know, Tamara, as a baby-boomer is one of many people in her situation. The “epidemic” might help people cope, or it could draw people back into their own isolated world. I hope for the former.

  2. Sam said

    This is a very interesting post, and an important issue for so many people, caring for aging parents. As a physician who has cared for older adults, we now see aging people caring for their parents, and this is a situation that will indeed become epidemic.
    I think support groups, where there is an opportunity to share these experiences with others who are going through a similar situation, can be a source of comfort to some people. It would be great if her spouse is willing to listen, but I have noticed certain aging adults who find it very difficult to deal with the decline of those one generation ahead. Perhaps fear of their own demise?
    Thanks for a really fascinating blog!

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