I’m an only child and have always had a difficult relationship with my mother. PICTURE: Gerd Altmann

I’m an only child and have always had a difficult relationship with my mother. 

For years, I kept my distance and I think we were both a lot happier that way. Recently, however, she has fallen ill with dementia: she is in her late 80s, and I have felt morally obliged to step in and look after her. Every time I see her, almost daily, it brings back all the criticism and pain. The worst part is she is repeating all the hurtful things she used to say to me because she keeps forgetting. I am stressed and anxious all the time and often come home in tears.

I don’t think I can go on like this any more, but I’m worried that if I leave her, I’ll be plagued by the guilt of abandoning my mother. I do admire you showing this last kindness to your mother. No one would have blamed you if you’d ignored her worsening health and  left caring for her to the professionals. I don’t think you really want to stop seeing her, but you’d like gratitude, some sort of apology and then a relatively peaceful time together over her final months or years.

That isn’t going to happen. I’m sorry to be brutal, but last-minute rapprochements are the stuff of Victorian novels, not real life. The awful truth, as you are discovering, is that certain types of dementia exacerbate character traits, and your mother’s attitude to you won’t change. There’s only one person capable of adapting, and that’s you.

Oddly, you can take some comfort from your mother’s consistency. She can, at least, be relied on not to say anything nice to you. If she were occasionally loving, you’d want to see more of that side of her, and would feel doubly rebuffed if you didn’t.

This way, although it might be horrible, her behaviour is at least predictable and won’t lead you to expect kindness or mothering from her. Despite her awful example, you’ve turned into a caring person. While she depends on you for the next little while, you don’t need anything from her. You’ve managed to build a life away from her that doesn’t rely on her opinion of you, so don’t give it any more power now.

There are a couple of things that might help reduce the cumulative effect of her attitude. One is talking to others. Your friends are bound to reassure you that you’re doing more than anyone would have expected. Ask them to accompany you sometimes when you go and see her. Her spite and lack of respect for you will look insignificant beside true friendship and loyalty.

The other weapon is humour. What about mentally ticking off her most frequent accusations, and giving yourself a reward for a certain tally? 

Set some of her words to impromptu music and sing them back to her. If you can’t countenance either option, talk to a counselor. Instead of going straight home after seeing her, arrange lovely diversions to help fill that gap in your life where a loving mother should be.

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