Bursack: Mom won’t socialize with ‘old people,’ despite loneliness

Mar 16, 2020

Dear Carol: My 79-year-old mother lives alone in her condo and is physically excellent for her age, but she’s miserable. She’s always been a complainer and difficult to get along with. Even though she sees someone from the family every other day, she says that she’s lonely and no one cares. I call her daily and my sister calls several times a week.

Since she still drives, there’s no reason that she can’t go to the senior center for meals, to church services and group activities, or reach out to people from her past who she’s cut off because they are “getting old.” I’d like to see her move to a local assisted living facility but she says that she won’t because, again, she doesn’t want to be around all those “old people.” She also says that the facilities are too expensive, but she can afford it. I’m sick of listening to her complain, and she won’t help herself. How do I change this? — HP.

Dear HP: Your frustration is understandable. There are many older people who would love to have your mother’s health and the ability to get around without pain, exhaustion or other health problems getting in the way.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, her comments about not wanting to be around those “old people” aren’t that unusual. We often don’t recognize in ourselves the signs that we are older because inside, we’re still the same as always. For most people this is more of a joking situation, but your mother seems unable to recognize reality.

This is not, by the way, the same as when people enjoy younger generations or feel young for their age. This is a matter of denial. Whatever her reasoning, it sounds as if your mother is healthy and capable, yet she is making your life miserable. She could just be one of those people who is only happy when she complains.

If you’re certain what you see is her lifelong personality at work and not a medical issue, it may help if the family steps back somewhat. I’m not suggesting that you ignore her. What you could do is tell her that because of another obligation you can only visit once next week and if your sister agrees, she could back off a bit, too. Work gradually toward less involvement (for now).

If your mother stops depending on the family for her social needs, she may take a moment to consider other options. Call and chat when you can. Stay connected, but keep encouraging her to go out and don’t feel the need to apologize. You’re still being attentive, just not enabling her self-made misery.

Remember, too, not everyone wants to socialize often and that’s fine. It’s her complaining that’s the issue. If she’s happier complaining than reaching out to others even when she’s able to do so, that’s OK, too.

Your job will be to protect yourself while trying to monitor her situation for times when she can actually benefit from your intervention.

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