Sunday, April 15, 2012

The father, the mother and the daughter who cares


The elderly parents of a reader in the Southwest are suffering from dementia. Her mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and is in need of care to help her get around the house. "She is not a very neat eater, but I'm just glad that she is eating," the reader writes.

The reader's father is responsible for taking care of his wife most of the time because he does not permit the caretakers his daughter has hired to help him. "He has always been very judgmental of other people and their appearance, and quite vocal about it," writes his daughter.

Her father has begun to get verbally abusive to her mother, the reader believes. "He talks in her presence about how frustrated he is with her abilities - how she spills her drinks, can't walk right, or is always packing to go somewhere. He rolls his eyes and acts superior to her. He is quite demeaning to her."

The reader tells her father that he is being "completely rude to mom," but when she does he forgets within minutes and "continues his diatribe."

"I would like to shock him by being very rude to him," she says, "but he would forget in minutes and start again. If I do it often enough he might eventually get the point."

"My dad's dementia does not allow him to remember our talks and his pledges to 'do better'. He has no patience to learn any new communication techniques in this stage of his life.

"Doctors have tried talking to him but he blows everyone off. I had his legal and pastoral counselor talk to him and they left it that dad has 'free agency' and can do whatever he likes."

"Where," she asks "does my responsibility for respecting my parents and my effort to protect my mother become a moral obligation to protect one over the other?"

The reader's father can indeed do whatever he likes as long as he doesn't bring harm to his wife or others in the process.

His daughter seems to have two concerns: changing her father's behavior and making sure that her mother is safe and cared for. The right thing is to focus on the latter of these concerns.

While the daughter clearly seems to care for her parents and wants them to live as good a life as they can given their medical issues, she cannot change the way her father behaves. She can, however, work to make sure that her mother gets the help and assistance she needs, whether this is through home health care or at a health care facility that specializes in caring for residents with her mother's illness.

Hearing her father castigate her mother or those who care for her is clearly discomforting. Few people want to see their parents behave inappropriately. But the energy spent trying to change her father is likely better directed toward an immediate need that can be addressed - namely, her mother's care. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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