Friday, September 8, 2023


 “My mother is driving me absolutely crazy,” Jenny begins. “I know that’s an old story, but it’s getting worse. I’m trying to get ready for my 50th birthday party and she can literally call me a dozen times a day. She’ll ask me how she can help me with the party and if I give her anything to do she keeps calling with one question after another. ‘Is it okay if I invite my sister? What about my neighbor? Are you having kids come? What about kids under 12? Under 5?’ And those are all separate calls. It’s driving me nuts! I’ve asked that she text me these questions but she just won’t do that. I’m at my wits end.”

“What’s your guess as to why she’s calling so often?” I ask. “Is she having some anxiety about you turning 50?”

“I never thought about that, but maybe. If I’m turning 50 she has to be getting older too. She’s always dreaded aging. But I don’t know, it also just feels like it’s what she’s always done, pretended to be helpless so I would take care of her, which has obviously gotten worse since my father died. I’m tired of being her caretaker. I have enough of my own headaches, my daughter floundering, my husband dissatisfied at work. It’s too much. But my mother is always the one who throws me over the edge. I guess that’s because I see her as so narcissistic and self-involved, never really seeing me or wanting to know what I want.”

“That’s obviously been true throughout your life.”

“Definitely! That’s why it’s so maddening. Even these questions about my party. It’s she who wants to invite her sister – and of course I’m inviting my aunt. She wants to invite her neighbor and it’s she who probably doesn’t want kids at my party.” Pause. “I’m sick of talking about her. I feel I can’t ever get her out of my head. Now she even calls about questions about her money, about her checkbook, about whether she deposited her social security check, which is of course on direct deposit. I guess she’s getting more and more infantile, wanting more and more for me to take care of her.”

Alarm bells go off in my mind. “How old is your mother?”


“I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but is it possible your mother is beginning to have cognitive problems?”

At least a minute passes as Jenny sits staring at me as though in shock, a deer caught in the headlights. Then she bursts into tears. “I’m terrible! I’m a terrible person, a terrible daughter. My first thought when you said that was, oh no, now I’m really going to have to take care of her! Isn’t that awful?”

“No, it’s not awful of you. It’s an understandable first thought. You’ve spent your life taking care of someone who didn’t need to be taken care of and it would indeed be horribly ironic if that person does need caretaking at the end of her life. But we may be getting way ahead of ourselves. I don’t know if your mother is having cognitive problems.”

“It’s just that it makes too much sense for it not to be true. I mean I know we all – especially as we age - lose words occasionally or misplace things – but as soon as you suggested it about my mother I knew it was true. That bit about her social security check did throw me and there have been other things. She didn’t seem to know who the President is although she’s always stayed up on current events. And it wasn’t only that she didn’t know, she didn’t seem to care either. And when she called to ask if she could invite her sister, I got short with her and said, ‘Of course I’m going to invite Aunt Mary.’ The way she reacted, I wasn’t sure she really knew her sister was my aunt.” Jenny pauses and shakes her head. “This is so terrible. What an awful way to end a life! And I’ve been getting so pissed at her lately and I’m sure you’re right, she just can’t help it.”

“But your getting pissed at her makes sense. You’ve seen her constant calling, questioning as a continuation of her playing at being helpless to elicit your caretaking.”

“But it’s not! Or maybe sometimes it still is.”

“Yes, that’s possible.”

“This is going to be hard.”

“Yes, it is.”

“I think I’ll make an appointment with her neurologist. Maybe he’ll be able to tell me how bad she really is. And if anything can be done.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“But they really can’t do anything, can they?”

“My understanding is, not much, but it never hurt to explore possibilities and get an idea of where she is at this point.”