Ask Amy: Dementia Leads to Family Conflict

By Amy Dickinson | September 2nd, 2020

Should the caregiver take on the entire burden?

Woman's husband with dementia causes family conflict

Dear Amy: My dad and stepmom have been married for over 40 years.

My husband and I recently retired and moved nearby to be closer to them. We want to spend our summers camping. My father’s dementia prevents them from joining us (he is 91).

When I announced that we were going camping over this summer, my stepmom acted like I was abandoning her. But I call every day and talk to them.

My stepmom (age 86) recently met a man (also in his 80s) whose wife has dementia, and is in a nursing home.

When we talked the other day, she told me that when I got back home, she was going away for a week (or more) with this man. She wasn’t sure where they were going or how long they would be gone. I’m dumbfounded!

I wouldn’t have an issue watching my dad if she wanted to go out for an afternoon or evening. Dad is extremely attached to her. Her leaving him feels like abandonment.

He was a great husband to her throughout their long marriage. Now he needs her! I don’t know how to handle this.

— Worried Daughter

Dear Worried: Your stepmother felt abandoned when you announced that you were leaving over the summer. It’s simple: She needs help, and you aren’t available.

When one elderly person is caring for another elderly person who is suffering with dementia, calling every day does not count as being particularly helpful, certainly if you live nearby.

You no doubt have been looking forward to your own retirement, envisioning freedom from the demands of your work life (and possibly other family obligations). But you don’t always get what you want when you want it. Surely your father didn’t envision his dementia. Your stepmother didn’t envision the overwhelming tasks of caregiving.

So yes, you did abandon your stepmother. Unfortunately, you don’t seem to connect your own impulses and behavior with hers: You both want to flee from an overwhelming situation.

My instinct is that your stepmother has made a shocking announcement in part to get your attention. I think you should react with equanimity. Do not attach to her desire to go away with another man. Do pay close attention to her desire to go away.

Tell her that you will stay with your dad for as long as she needs. Perhaps you could offer to “switch houses” with her for a week, where she stays in your house and you and your husband move home (she can visit during the day). Taking care of your father full time will give you some insight into what your stepmother has been experiencing. Express an interest in meeting her friend, and try to be open-minded until you have a clearer picture.

Want to get even more life tips from Amy? Read more of her advice columns here!

In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2020 by Amy Dickinson

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