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Don't try to replace parent's deceased spouse

Carol Bursack of Minding Our Elders

Dear Carol: After my mom died last year, I stepped in to take care of my 83-year-old dad. I know that I spoiled him at first because of his devastation over losing Mom, but now he's used to my taking over the "wife" role. I pay his bills, take him shopping, cook his meals, clean and spend nearly every day, all day, with him.

When I'm leaving to go back home to my husband, who is retired and has his own health problems, Dad wants to know when I'll be back. He knows the answer will be tomorrow, but he asks anyway. Dad's healthy and strong, but he needs some assistance, yet he fights my suggestions. How do I get off of this merry-go-round? — CT

Dear CT: Like so many of us, you know that you need to back off from so much caregiving but you don't know how to do it. What you did at first was kind. Your mistake was letting it go on so long that your dad assumes that this is the new normal.

My family was headed in that direction with my uncle. When my aunt died he was devastated not only by losing his wife but his housekeeper and cook, as well. My mother and I tried to take up the slack for a few weeks but we saw his dependence on us growing, so even though he complained, we hired an in-home agency for some custodial (nonmedical) in-home care. We also got him a personal alarm to wear for emergencies.

It took some time for my uncle to get used to having hired caregivers but eventually the three who rotated became his friends and he welcomed them. They helped him stay safe when he showered, and they made light meals, washed clothes and did his grocery shopping. This was expensive, but even a few hours can help a lot.

Gently explain to your dad that while you want to help you have overdone it and that is making you resentful. Let him know that things must change, and then present him with two options so that he has choices. His having a choice will be important in moving forward.

Tell him that he can go with you to look at assisted living facilities where he can have meals, activities and the opportunity to make friends, or else you'll hire in-home help to come in to help out for a few hours.

Stay firm in your resolve. If he refuses both options, begin to wean yourself from him by going over for shorter and shorter times. Check on him, make certain that his medications are there and help him with groceries, but don't spend the day providing him with entertainment. You could arrange for Meals on Wheels, as well. Spending time alone may convince him that he would benefit from a change, or he will make do all right for a while. Either way, you will be able to regain your status as a daughter.

Carol Bradley Bursack is an established columnist, blogger, and the author of a support book on caregiving. She hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at Carol can be reached at