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When Elderly Parents Suck The Life Out Of Their Kids

My patient’s son stood vigil outside her hospital room day and night. His eyebrows were frozen at an anxious angle. Although his mom was healing well from her injury, I could see that he was worried about next steps. He asked staff repeatedly about his mom’s pain management, and reviewed every therapy session she attended.

His mom, on the other hand, was deceptively charming. She was a thin, well-groomed elderly woman who knew how to exact empathy from others. When I looked into her room from a distance she appeared comfortable, lying in her hospital bed covered in a quilt that her son had brought her from home. When I entered the room to check on her, she would grab my hand and wince, telling me that the pain was severe but that she didn’t want any medication. She was quite invested in convincing me that she was unable to go home and care for herself, and that she needed to be discharged to her son’s home. She would not accept others help at home, nor would she go to a skilled nursing facility.

She was doing well in therapy, limited mostly by her macular degeneration (poor eyesight). Again, I watched her from outside her field of vision. I saw her stand without assistance, push her walker across the room, and navigate a couple of stairs. I heard her speak to her son in angry and dismissive tones. When she saw me approach her knees buckled and she crumpled to a padded bench. “I am not safe to go home, doctor.” She said. And her eyes filled with tears – “I am going to fall and no one will know.”

I took her son to a private room to discuss the predicament. I carefully raised the subject of how his mom was doing well physically, and could discharge home safely with home health services, but was angling for a discharge to his house. I asked him some open ended questions and learned that he was her only son, that his mom had been guilting him about quitting his job to care for her full time.

He became tearful – “I have only a few more years to go before I can collect my pension. Mom knows this but wants me to quit right now and move back home. If I do that I won’t have enough money to survive my own retirement. She has no friends and dad died several years ago. She says she doesn’t want any hired help at her house, and she cries when we discuss nursing homes. She says if I love her I will let her live with me. But I don’t have time to help her during the day. What am I supposed to do? She has been doing this to me all my life – getting me to do what she wants!”

I decided to tell him the unvarnished truth.

“I can see that your mom can be quite manipulative, and this has been an ongoing struggle. You need to take care of yourself. The fact that she wants to be with you 24/7 does not prove her love — a loving mom would not ask her son to jeopardize his financial future so that she wouldn’t have the ‘discomfort’ of caregivers in her home. Do not feel guilty about continuing to work. Her insurance will cover the care she needs. It’s ok to say no to her. That’s my professional opinion.”

The son let out an audible sigh. He thanked me profusely for telling him the truth. I told him that it was entirely possible that his mom would fall down on purpose once out of the hospital, to try to get him to change his mind. I warned him not to let her consume his life. She likely had a personality disorder that made her capable of squeezing the very life out of him.

My patient ended up discharging to a very nice skilled facility that her son had pre-screened for her. She was as happy as a wet cat on departure, but I believe it was the right decision for both of them. I just hope that she didn’t succeed in wrapping her emotional constrictor muscles around the neck of her poor son again. I tried my best to save him, but in the end I know that sometimes people have to save themselves.

Understanding Hospital Delirium And Some Tips To Prevent It

No matter how sick my grandmother got or what her doctors said, she refused to go to the hospital because she thought it was a dangerous place. To some degree, she was right. Although hospitals can be places of healing, hospital stays can have serious downsides, too.

One that has been getting a lot of attention lately is the development of delirium in people who are hospitalized. Delirium is a sudden change in mental status characterized by confusion, disorientation, altered states of consciousness (from hyperalert to unrousable), an inability to focus, and sometimes hallucinations. It’s the most common complication of hospitalization among older people.

We wrote about treating and preventing hospital delirium earlier this year in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch. In the New York Times “The New Old Age” blog, author Susan Seliger vividly describes her 85-year-old mother’s rapid descent into hospital delirium, and tips for preventing it.

Although delirium often recedes, it may have long-lasting aftereffects. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Caring For People In The Later Stages Of Alzheimer’s Disease

Barbara Moscowitz, coordinator of geriatric social work for the Geriatric Medicine Unit at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, spoke to me and about a dozen other Harvard Medical School employees yesterday as part of series of seminars on family life and other issues offered by the school’s human resources department.

Moscowitz’s talk was titled “Dementia and Cognitive Decline (Aging Gracefully).” I was there mainly out of professional interest because I’ve written a couple of articles for the Harvard Health Letter recently about Alzheimer’s and dementia, including a piece in the September 2011 issue about mild cognitive impairment and another in July 2011 about new Alzheimer’s guidelines.

But I also wonder about how my own aging brain is faring (not well, it seems, on some days) and I have an older parent (age 81).

So my curiosity wasn’t entirely work related.

A disease of behaviors

Moscowitz covered Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Real Meaning At Christmas

slumsEvery day I go to work and spend time with suffering people. They come to me for help and for comfort. They open up to me with problems that they would not tell anyone else. They put trust in me — even if I am not able to fix their problems. I serve as a source of healing, but I also am a source of hope.

Christmas is a moving season for many of the same reasons. No, I am not talking about the giving of gifts or the time spent with family. I am not talking about traditions, church services, or singing carols. I am not even talking about what many see as thereal meaning of Christmas: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and baby Jesus. The Christmas story most of us see in pictures or read about in story books is a far cry from the Biblical account. The story we see and hear is sanctified, clean, and safe.

Before I go on, I want to assure my readers that I am in no way trying to persuade them to become Christians. I am a Christian, but whether or not you believe the actual truth of the story, there is much to be learned from it. I find it terribly hard to see the real Christmas story here in a country where the season is filled with so much else — much of it very good. It is far easier to just be happy with family, friends, giving gifts, singing songs, and maybe even going to church, than it is to contemplate the Christmas story. I think the Christians in our culture have gotten way off base on this — much to our shame.

Christmas is not about prosperity and comfort. It is about help to the hopeless. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Distractible Mind*

Feeding Tubes In The Elderly Demented?

An article in [last] week’s New York Times entitled Feeding Demented Patients with Dignity suggests that hand feeding dementia patients may be a better option than tube feeding them.

My God, are we really putting feeding tubes in the elderly demented? When did this happen?

During college, I worked as a nurses aide in a nursing home outside Philadelphia. For 20 hours a week (40 hours in the summer) for two years, I cared for patients in all stages of dementia, from the walking confused through to the end stage, stiffened victims confined to wheelchairs or beds. But in all that time, I never, ever saw anyone with a feeding tube. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The Blog that Ate Manhattan*

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