Ask Ada: My Mother With Dementia Thinks I Abandoned Her

Plus: how to help a person sliding into depression after a breakup.

Welcome to Ask Ada, Folks’ bi-weekly advice column for people impacted by health issues or disability. Want Ada to help you with a problem? Email Ada at or tag @folksstories on Twitter with the #askada hashtag.

My Mother With Dementia Thinks I Abandoned Her

Dear Ada,

My mother has Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home. She recognizes me, but her memory jumps through time. Sometimes she thinks I’m a young teenager. Other times she remembers me in my early thirties, and asks about my children as if they were babies. Most rarely does she see me as I am, which is in my early sixties. 

I was going to visit my mother about every other day, but a few months ago I suffered a massive heart attack, and wasn’t able to see her when I was in the hospital and recovering. I tried calling as often as possible. But I never told her about the heart attack because I wasn’t sure if she’d understand, and if so, I didn’t want to worry her. 

This has completely changed our relationship. She’s angry all the time and always says that I’ve abandoned her. And she remembers this even when she thinks of me at different ages or times of life. How should I proceed? I’ve just been changing the conversation or ignoring her unkind remarks. Should I tell her about the heart attack and my still-limited health, or should I just accept that this is our relationship now and visit less, but as often as I can muster? Any help is appreciated.

My Heart Hurts

Dear Hurt Heart,

It can be difficult to decipher what people with Alzheimer’s actually understand, so I understand why you didn’t tell your mother about your heart attack when it happened. 

Though, it seems as if your mother already understands that something has happened, even if she’s a bit lost in time. Your sudden absence a few months ago caused her emotional distress, and it’s still affecting her emotionally. Worse, it’s affecting the relationship.

Because of this, it might be helpful to do some damage control. Instead of avoiding your mother’s accusations or trying to change the subject, try acknowledging her. 

The only tricky part will be determining how to acknowledge her pain. The level of comprehension for a person with Alzheimer’s is highly dependent on the stage of their disorder and how they’ve always processed difficult news. 

If your mother is not quite cognizant, a simple apology and a vow to be more present might be all she needs. Try saying something similar to: “I’m sorry I made you feel alone. I’m here with you now.” 

If she does have longer moments of clarity, consider letting her in on your situation, even if you are shielding her from some of the more serious information. You could let her know that you’re experiencing some medical issues, and because of that, you might not be able to show up as often as you once did. Because the heart attack was months ago, it might not be the best idea to tell her about it, but acknowledging that you may be in to see her less frequently, might help her expectations. If she knows that you’re taking care of your health, she might feel less afraid of being abandoned.

If she knows that you’re taking care of your health, she might feel less afraid of being abandoned.

It’s also important to meet with the nursing home staff privately. Do they have a social worker or an administrative lead you could make a plan with in case you were to experience any health issues in the future? You want to feel confident that they’re meeting her needs both physically and emotionally. Talk to them about how they can support her more if you’re not there, and how you’d like them to speak about your absences. If technology is available, see if they’ll help you set up times to connect via a video messaging app. This will allow you to see each other just as frequently, but not put the constant stress on you of getting to the nursing home when you’re not feeling well.

Don’t accept this new fear of abandonment as the end of your relationship. Know that this road with your mother’s Alzheimer’s will be rocky, but any effort you can put in to enjoy the time you have together will be meaningful.

How Can I Help My Sister-In-Law From Sliding Into Depression?

Dear Ada,

My wife’s sister recently got out of a long-term relationship and she has been getting increasingly depressed. She’s stopped going to therapy and is cutting off conversations with family and friends. Now, she no longer comes to gatherings where she knows family in relationships will be, because seeing others in relationships is a trigger for her. We’re worried about her and want to help her. My wife and I want her to know we’re thinking about her and that we’re there for her, but we aren’t sure how to connect with her. We don’t live close enough that either of us can just stop by for coffee or visit. How can we be there for her?

We Want to Help

Dear Helper,

You sound like a caring brother-in-law, and your wife’s sister is lucky to have you in her life. It’s evident how much you care for her, but right now what she needs is your wife. Not you.

If she’s avoiding family functions because she doesn’t want to be around couples, then a joint reach out won’t have the impact you’re hoping for. She’ll see it not as two concerned family members reaching out, but yet again another happy couple in her face. 

That doesn’t mean you should do nothing. 

Your wife can call, email, or show up — even if it’s far away — and let your sister-in-law know that she understands that she is hurting right now, but that she will always be there for her when she is ready to talk. Then, unless your worried about her harming herself, there really isn’t much you can do to get her to open up.

Sometimes, the only way to connect when another person is forcibly avoiding vulnerability and emotions is to touch base more frequently…

Sometimes, the only way to connect when another person is forcibly avoiding vulnerability and emotions is to touch base more frequently, but about surface-level things. Showing that you’re present in their life can make a big enough impact to initiate them being vulnerable about what’s bothering them. For example, both you and your wife could send an email or text message when something reminds you of her. 

Did a new book come out that she’d like? A quick recommendation shows you’re thinking of her. Did you wear two different shoes to work one day? Take a picture and share a laugh over your mistake. Can your wife not choose between shades of blue for the bathroom? Send her a picture and ask for her insight.

Being intentional about finding things that remind you of your sister-in-law and then sharing them with her prove that you and your wife see her and that she truly isn’t alone.

I know you mentioned that swinging by isn’t an option right now, but can your wife and her sister make plans for something that doesn’t involve couples? Maybe they could meet halfway to watch a movie together or get their nails done. Having a physical presence in her life will help you and your wife feel comfortable that she is safe, and it will also make your sister-in-law feel less alone.

It might also be helpful to rally the troops behind the scenes. You and your wife can’t be the only people concerned about her. Get the entire family on the same page. The more people she has showing up for her, the more frequently she will be reminded that she is loved and missed.

Encourage her to start seeing a therapist again, and help her to figure out a self-care plan when she’s having trouble moving through the pain.

 After some time, if your sister-in-law still hasn’t moved past this breakup, and doesn’t seem to be opening up to your wife, you may have to sit down with her again and tell her that you’re worried about her. Do this in person if possible. Encourage her to start seeing a therapist again, and help her to figure out a self-care plan when she’s having trouble moving through the pain. Eventually, with all of your love and involvement, your sister-in-law will feel strong enough to work through this current painful situation. Until then, be present however you’re able to be. That’s all that matters.

Are you facing a problem that is being complicated by a health condition or disability? Folks’ advice columnist Erin Ollila wants to help. Email and tell us your problem.