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MINDING OUR ELDERS: Maintaining dignity of aging parent takes special patience

Carol Bursack of Minding Our Elders

Dear Carol: I've decided that my mother must have dementia. Today I discovered that her tax return was rejected because she had marked several things wrong. She took this to my husband because she didn't want me to know. Also, her housekeeping is terrible. It drives me nuts that she doesn't even throw away garbage when the can is a foot from where she puts the garbage down. These are just examples of what is happening. How can I convince her that she needs to let me handle things and that she needs to trust that I will do what is best for her? I understand she doesn't want to give up her independence but I'm tired of cleaning up her messes and would prefer to just handle things myself so that I only have to do things once. — BY

Dear BY: I can understand your frustration. It's frightening to see these changes in our aging parents and those feelings can come out as frustration and even anger. The other side of that, though, is that your elder's dignity and independence are as important to her as the air that she breathes.

It sounds as if your mom hasn't been diagnosed by a doctor so dementia may or may not be what is behind her behavior. From your examples, the problem could actually be failing eyesight. Even if other issues point toward dementia, her medications, an infection, or her thyroid could be the cause of her symptoms. Your mom would likely benefit from a complete physical, including a medication review, in case the underlying problem is something that is reversible.

Of course, she could truly be in the early stages of dementia. In that case, her symptoms will worsen and she'll eventually need more assistance. In order to help, you'll need education and support. The Alzheimer's organization near you, or their website at, would be a good place to start. Your local Area Agency on Aging is also a terrific resource, as is

Try to view the situation through your mother's eyes. Her dignity and independence are the most important things that she has left. You can learn how to preserve her sense of self by becoming educated in methods of caring for someone who is aging, whether or not that person has dementia.

Your mother seems to feel that your husband would be less judgmental, perhaps because he doesn't have the emotional investment that you do, so maybe he could help you learn to take a step back and view what is happening with your mother as something beyond her control.

Helping our aging parents can present us with a steep learning curve. We all make mistakes. I'd suggest that you start over with your mother by showing her with both careful words and supportive actions that you want to work with her to make her life better. In the end, you will probably experience less frustration and enjoy a better relationship.