What to Overlook, and Not, With an Aging, Anxious Mom

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By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 8, 2008; Page C05

Q. My mother, 78, has been agoraphobic for the past 37 years. Although she read self-help books and saw a therapist at first, she quit all that when I was 10 and never left the house again unless it was necessary.

Today my mother lives alone in my home town, about 10 minutes from my unmarried older sister and six hours from my husband, our two children, 6 and 9, and me. Since she doesn’t drive and is too phobic to fly, she only sees her grandchildren when I take them to see her, drive there and bring her to my house, or ask my sister to bring her to me.

The last time I wanted to get her, my mother said that her house was too messy for visitors, so I offered to clean it for her — without the kids. Instead of thanking me, she got mad, said she never wanted to speak to me again and hung up the phone. I’d blame this behavior on her age, but she has done this many, many times, and then she waits for me to call and apologize. Her temper is getting to be a bit much for me and so is the distance she keeps.

A few years ago — on her way to visit us — she found out that I was ill and made my sister take her home. Later, when my husband was deployed overseas, she refused to visit, even though I offered to drive her to my house.
I am stunned that my mother doesn’t want more of a relationship with her grandchildren. She adored them when they were younger and they adored her, but she has taken less and less interest in them in the past three or four years. They are hurt and confused by this behavior and I am, too. Should I just let my sister deal with her? Or should I push my way in where I am not wanted?

A.Your mother may be too proud to admit it, but she needs your attention, your empathy and your compassion more than she ever has before because her age and her severe anxiety disorder are making her more and more dependent.

It isn’t easy to get old. To have a body that aches and feet that still want to dance. To have friends who forget who you are, and in time, who they are. To say goodbye to a sick neighbor and wonder if you’ll ever say hello to her again. Your mom is waiting for the next shoe to drop and she doesn’t know if it will belong to her friend, her neighbor — or herself.

Most people adjust pretty well to old age but almost all of them have certain behavioral changes. Since they can’t do much housework anymore, some of them — like your mom — won’t let anyone see how they live, even a dear daughter. You and your sister might surprise her by hiring a housekeeping service to vacuum her house and wash her windows while one of you runs errands with your mom. Although she probably will explode when she sees what the cleaners have done, don’t take her complaints personally. In her heart, she’ll be relieved and may even want them to come back in a few months.

Poor housekeeping isn’t the only change that can afflict the elderly. Some get terribly anxious. Others are afraid of dying but withdraw from their family and friends to hide their fears, or they get unreasonably angry with them, much like a teenager who gets mad at her parents before she leaves for college. It makes the parting a little easier.

You can’t do much about your mother’s temper, but you can see that she gets a complete work-up from a caring, board-certified geriatric specialist who knows the signs of Alzheimer’s, depression and other problems well and will explain the results of any tests in clear and simple terms. He may also prescribe a drug to ease your mother’s agoraphobia, for the treatment is much better today, and he may even find a geriatric psychotherapist who will see your mother at home or counsel her by phone. This can help enormously.

Two books should also be invaluable. “Getting Old Without Getting Anxious” by Peter V. Rabins, with Lynn Lauber (Avery, $25) will help you and your mother cope with her agoraphobia, while “Making Up With Mom” by Julia Halpert and Deborah Carr (St. Martin’s, $25) will teach you how to deflect the slings and arrows that fly out of her mouth. They don’t have to hurt you as much as they do.

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