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Adult child needn't remain target of misplaced anger

Carol Bursack of Minding Our Elders

Dear Carol: My mother has always refused to take any medication even though she's needed a prescription to control her blood pressure for years. Predictably, at 74, she had a massive stroke and she will now require around-the-clock care for the rest of her life. There is no sign of dementia. Mom's in a nursing home and getting great care but she is extremely angry and she focuses that anger at me. I can't provide the care that she needs at home, but I still feel guilty about placing her in a facility and she knows how to manipulate that guilt. I visit daily. I know that I'm doing all that I can, yet her anger gets to me and I'm starting to resent her. How do I change this? - Donna

Dear Donna: You're suffering from a nearly universal caregiver problem that I call unearned guilt. Caregivers can find something to feel guilty about in nearly any situation, but placing a person we love in a facility often increases those feelings. This happens even when you know that a good facility can provide care for someone like your mom that's better than you could ever provide on your own.

Your mother's anger is about her situation, not you, and it could possibly be worsened by the fact that she is aware that her own stubbornness likely contributed to her requiring this care. She needs to aim her anger at somebody, and she trusts that you will always love her and be there for her no matter what, so you've become her target. This is unfair to you, but it happens more often than we'd like to think. Misdirected anger can destroy relationships, but this is your mother so you'll want to hang in for the long run which means fixing what you can fix. That doesn't mean accepting abuse.

Since there is no known dementia present, you can level with your mom. Let her know that you are aware that her anger is about her condition and you sympathize, but that you can't allow her to continue to take it out on you. Being direct may help your resentment. Refrain from saying "I told you so," or even discussing her past refusal to take medications, as that will only make matters worse.

Your mom is not likely to immediately change her ways, but you can underscore what you told her by leaving if she is being particularly nasty to you during a visit, though you should warn her first. Then, if you do leave earlier than you would have if she'd treated you better, assure her that you'll be back later.

You can learn to detach from your mom's anger by internalizing the truth that this is not your fault, you can't do more, and your unearned guilt is a drain on your physical and mental health. You mom needs you to be her advocate, but make self-care just as high a priority as parent care.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at She can be reached at