Looking after my mum is wearing me out?

Our relationships counsellor answers your problems: Looking after my mum is wearing me out?

Q I have been caring for my 94-year-old mum since my dad died in 1986. Probably before that too, if I’m honest. I am – as she says – the dutiful daughter. Before her mobility deteriorated, she stayed with us every weekend, as well as at Easter and Christmas. Plus my husband and I have taken her on holiday most years. 

She has recently started having carers, who wash and dress her each morning and get her lunch ready. Before this, I was her sole carer. But I’m approaching 70 and running on empty, while my husband is 83. I visit my mum three to four times a week, although she would ideally want me there every day. My husband and I do her housework and shopping. 

An anonymous woman wrote to Caroline West-Meads about her struggle to care for her ageing mother whilst balancing her own life

An anonymous woman wrote to Caroline West-Meads about her struggle to care for her ageing mother whilst balancing her own life  

I love her dearly but I constantly feel guilty that she is at home alone, especially if I see friends instead of her. Sometimes I turn down invitations. My daughters say she knows how to pull my heartstrings and that I deserve to have my own life. My husband is fed up. Now his two sons have asked us to go on holiday with them. I dread telling her.

 I feel guilty that she is at home alone, especially if I see friends

Goodness, you really are the dutiful daughter. But you have gone well beyond the call of duty. I was amazed that you have been looking after your mum since she was 58 – an age when she shouldn’t have needed that much help. Unfortunately, in trying to support her after your father died, which must have been very hard for you both, you did too much for her. 

Instead of rebuilding her own life, she became too dependent on you – a pattern that has continued for decades. Indeed, your husband is of an age when he might expect someone to do his gardening and shopping. So this must stop. The first rule of looking after anyone is self-care and, as you say, you are running on empty. 

Your daughters and stepsons are right – you and your husband must step back, however hard it seems. Reading your longer letter, I think your mum does play on your guilt sometimes. Think of it this way – would you want your daughters and their husbands to make countless sacrifices to look after you when you are that old? 

 You need to talk to your mum about getting carers more often

I am sure that you wouldn’t. So please take more breaks. And do go on that holiday. It won’t be easy but talk gently to your mum about getting carers in more often – though her needs sound so great that she might be better in a care home if that is possible. 

Although some people dislike the idea, they can surprise themselves by finding it more sociable than they expected. So in the first instance, call social services or her GP to ask for more help. Also contact ageuk.org.uk and carersuk.org for advice and support. Perhaps ask them to point you towards counselling to help you understand the roots of your misplaced guilt, too. 

I’m scared of being intimate again 

My husband died eight years ago aged 63. We hadn’t had sex for several years before that because of his alcoholism, and I haven’t had sex since. I didn’t want to get involved with anyone again and I thought that part of my life was over. 

Now, however, I’ve met a wonderful man (he’s 71) who I have become very close friends with. He makes me so happy. He wants us to be in a proper sexual relationship. I want that too – I think. 

I am falling in love with him. But I’m terrified. The idea of making love is so daunting. What if it isn’t very good and it ruins our friendship? I feel as nervous as if it was my first time. 

A It’s not surprising that you feel this way at the thought of having sex after so long. As well as the lack of physical affection in your marriage, I am sure that, because of your husband’s alcoholism, there was a great deal of emotional distance too and suddenly finding yourself on the brink of a loving, intimate relationship must feel as scary as it is exciting. 

Do please tell this man how nervous you are. He sounds lovely and he would want to know so he can reassure you. By the time such a man has reached his early 70s, I am sure that he has enough sensitivity and experience to help you be able to relax and that making love will prove lovely. 

But if you do find that you have any problems (eg, with penetration because of being too tense), please don’t be too shy to go to sex therapy together (find a therapist at cosrt.org.uk) as these can be solved. You deserve to have the joy of a sexual relationship for many years to come after such a long drought!

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