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My situation

My mother is 94, can barely walk, even with a walker, because she’s in excruciating pain from osteoarthritis and other ailments. Her legs often won’t support her, so he falls regularly and can’t get up. Although she has a monitored alert button, she won’t use it. We are a 10-minute drive away, but even if a phone is within reach, sometimes she lies on the floor for hours, defecating and urinating all over herself and the carpets, until I phone her in the morning at 10:00, as I do every day.

She refuses to see a doctor or deal with her health issues in any way; won’t wear an adult diaper, despite chronic diarrhea; refuses to move out of her home even though it’s clearly unsafe for her; rejects having help – even if it’s free – unless I provide it; and balks at any suggestion of changes to the house that might make her life easier.

I am 64 and an only child. Luckily I am blessed with a wonderful husband who has more patience with my mother than I do, probably because he didn’t grow up witnessing her unremitting psychological abuse of my saintly father, her siblings, and me.

And yes, she does have some form of dementia, but the stubbornness dates back decades. She has always avoided medical care until the situation was dire. In her mid-50s, she knew something was seriously wrong for months, but didn’t deal with it until an aggressive uterine cancer had grown down her vagina and was sticking out. The doctors thought the tumour had grown well beyond the uterus and gave her a few months to live. However, by some miracle, radiation and chemotherapy shrank the growth. When they did a hysterectomy, they found that it was confined to her uterus.

The treatment was brutal, with horrible side effects, but it gave her an extra 40 years. She got to see her grandchildren grow up and become the lovely adults they are today.

Now, any rational person would have learned from such an experience that it makes sense to nip physical problems in the bud. Not her. She just stuck her head deeper into the sand about this and every other issue that affects her well-being.

It’s obvious to everyone who knows her that she is cognitively impaired, but she can put on a show of competence when needed.

Here in Ontario, the laws around elder rights strictly prohibit intervention unless the person is a danger to others or is clearly and unequivocally mentally unfit. So someone could step in if a person who lives in an apartment regularly leaves the stove on because that causes risk to other tenants. However, if that same individual lives alone in a house and falls into a very broad grey area of mental competence, nothing can be done.

It doesn’t matter if the old person poses a threat to herself or causes family members unspeakable stress – even to the point of a caretaker’s complete breakdown – the rights of the elderly take precedence. No one can force her to accept help or move into an assisted-living facility. Of course, that doesn’t mean adult children are off the hook. We are expected to see that the person is cared for, but without any authority to make intelligent decisions on her behalf.

My mother put my father into catch-22 situations as far back as I can remember. On almost a daily basis, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, and doubly-damned if he tried to find a third option. I swore she wouldn’t do that to me, but here I am in the mother of all catch-22s.