Dear Prudence

Before the Fall

My 91-year-old mother can’t take care of herself—and she won’t let us help her.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
My mom will be 91 next month, and until recently she has been in remarkably good mental and physical health. She lives alone by choice. About a month ago, she collapsed in the street, was taken to the hospital, and spent three weeks in ICU. Her doctors diagnosed her with dehydration. She is home now and has fallen twice, once spending the whole night on the floor. She has a Life Alert and will not wear it. She has a cellphone and will not carry it. (“Who would I call?”) She has a walker and cane and will use neither. She is signed up to get groceries delivered and will not use the service. We asked her to look at an assisted-living apartment, and she refused. We found a home health aide who could drop in a few times a week and she said no. We are at our wits’ end. She is also welcome to move in with me or one of my brothers because we all have room, and she refused. My aunt says, “Force her,” but what do we do with someone who refuses every attempt at help? I can’t tie her up and throw her in the trunk of my car, although the idea is very tempting. My brothers and I all think that living alone is no longer viable for her. So what do we do now?

—Aging Parent

This is so painful and tricky, because your mother is an adult who has the right to make decisions, even risky and unsafe ones, but she has also repeatedly endangered her own health and may not be in a stable state of mind. While you can’t (and shouldn’t!) throw her in your car, you can file a report with Adult Protective Services and request a home visit from a social worker to evaluate your mother’s living conditions. If they determine there’s cause for concern, you may be able to put in a request to become her legal guardian. That’s an expensive and lengthy process, however, and given your mother’s resistance to all the other suggestions you’ve offered, it’s likely to involve a lot of conflict. That’s not to say it isn’t worth pursuing if you believe she’s at risk of seriously injuring herself and failing to call for help again—just that it shouldn’t be your next immediate move.

In the meantime, you can continue to visit more often (and enlist other family members to do the same), and perhaps ask your mother’s neighbors to check in on her from a distance if they seem friendly and open to the idea. It’s not an ideal fix, of course, but if your goal right now is simply “make sure Mom isn’t immobilized on the kitchen floor until we can find a long-term solution,” then that’s going to go a long way toward relieving your fears.

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Dear Prudence,
Two months ago, I started a new position at a small company. This position was a reach for me in terms of experience, and I’m still getting familiar with what’s expected of me and what I need to do day to day. I recently had my first performance review. While there were many positives, there were also several things that I needed to improve, namely being more of a self-starter and “owning” my area of expertise. My superior was nothing but supportive and direct, but I couldn’t help but feel a little upset and embarrassed that I wasn’t doing as good a job as I thought I was. In the moment, I handled the feedback appropriately (no tears, thank God), but I feel awkward and embarrassed at work now. I don’t want to do any more damage, so do you have any tips on getting over constructive criticism and not feeling ashamed?

—Dealing With Criticism at Work

I don’t think you have done any damage! You recently started a new job that you knew would stretch you to your limits, and just as you anticipated, you’re learning about some of your limits, and getting specific advice on what needs to improve. The fact that there were “many positives” in your performance review suggests that overall you’re exactly where you need to be. Don’t let the fact that you’re not already completely self-sufficient feel like a demoralizing failure. You got a little flustered but maintained your composure during the review itself, which is absolutely fine. No one is expecting perfection from you, so don’t beat yourself up for failing to achieve perfection within two months. That’s not to say you have to stop feeling self-conscious overnight—an imperative that might only serve to make you more self-conscious about being self-conscious to begin with. But if the idea of walking into the office fills you with embarrassment, take a moment to remind yourself that all truly useful performance reviews incorporate both positive and negative feedback, that you have been given specific feedback that will help you continue to improve, and that your boss hired you specifically to do this job, knowing that you did not have a great deal of experience, because they trusted that you would be able to do it—and you have shown that you are.

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Dear Prudence,
A few years ago, I took a job across the country where my large, wealthy extended family lives. I spoke to these people weekly and spent my summers during college in their guest rooms (at their invitation) so I considered us close. I fell for a housing scam trying to rent remotely and had nowhere to stay. Not one of my grandparents, aunts, uncle, or cousins would let me stay on their couch for even a few nights. I ended up getting arrested after sleeping in my car for a week, and was fired after missing work due to being in jail. My car was impounded, so I had to check into a homeless shelter. During this time, my family kind of ghosted me.

It took me years to recover, but I’m doing great now. When I stopped being homeless my family just appeared back in my life like nothing ever happened. I had always been a conscientious houseguest, and I’ve never had any kind of substance or emotional problems. I’ve asked a few of them why no one helped me and mostly gotten excuses like, “We were so busy planning a wedding at the time,” or “We just didn’t want to get involved.” I don’t really want to fake my way through the holidays this year—or ever again, for that matter—but I really don’t want to have to call each individual to let them know I don’t think they’re much of a family. Would it be fair to ghost them right back?

—Family Ghosted Me

Absolutely. There are situations in which a frank conversation about expectations and resentments is necessary and healthy, but you should not have to tell a close family member, “When I was arrested for being homeless, it really hurt that you didn’t call or let me stay with you,” particularly if the thought of doing so seems likely to lead to thin excuses like, “I was tasting a lot of wedding cakes that week, so, you know.” Find your family with people you trust.

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Dear Prudence: My mom is neglecting my kid sister—what should I do?

Hear more Prudie at

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Dear Prudence,
In 2011, my younger sister “Sarah” passed away. I am notorious in my family for being one to never show feelings, and my dad is the same way. My sister was 8 years old, and although she was sick with hypo-cardiomyopathy her entire life, her death was unexpected and hit my family hard, obviously. It has been six years and through some snooping in my other younger sister’s diary, I found out my dad routinely thinks about my sister and likes to imagine she is there with him when he is struggling at work.

I am in college now and in recent years I have been struggling a lot with my sister’s death and coping with how I feel. It hurts me to know my dad is hurting (my mom and I are not on speaking terms), and I do not know how to talk to anyone about it. I even get uncomfortable when my grandparents talk about her on her death anniversary, and I really want to talk to my family to help all of us cope better. What should I do, Prudence?

—How Do I Talk to My Dad About My Dead Sister?

You don’t have to mention what you’ve learned from your sister’s diary to have this conversation with your dad, and the conversation doesn’t have to go perfectly to be helpful and healing. Consider something along the lines of, “I’ve been thinking a lot about Sarah lately, and I miss her a lot. I don’t always know how to talk about her, but I want to. Do you think about her too?” Acknowledging that you feel uncertain upfront can go a long way toward alleviating some of your anxieties about having this conversation in the first place. If it helps you feel more prepared, you can try writing out a few of the things you wish you could say to your father before speaking to him, as well as a list of fears that are preventing you from saying anything. Seeing them on paper may help clarify your thoughts. There’s no one right way to talk about someone you love who has died—you can share memories of her, what makes you think of her, what you struggle with and what feels painful. You may find that once you start talking, it gets a little easier each time.

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Dear Prudence,
My ex and I dated for long enough to acquire a menagerie—two cats and a dog. Our split was mutual and amicable, but I am still very much in love with her, and she is aware of this. We agreed that I would keep one cat and the dog, and she would take the other cat. We split at a time when there were big questions about her visa (she is not a citizen and had to return to her country of origin while her paperwork was processed). I agreed to take care of her cat while she was out of the country.

Two months ago, she returned to the country, albeit 1,200 miles away, and moved into an apartment that is not pet-friendly. She claims that she is going to get an emotional support animal letter from a therapist but seems to have made no effort to do this. I love this cat but live in an apartment with a pet limit that I am currently exceeding, and I can’t in good conscience pawn the cat off on someone else. Hanging onto the cat also means we have to be in frequent contact, which keeps me from moving on. Every deadline I’ve attempted to set has been pushed back. I’m not sure what to do.

—Possessive Pet Owners

There’s a difference between “pawning a pet off” and making a responsible decision about your cat’s welfare once it becomes clear that your ex is either unable or unwilling to care for it. It may be that you can get permission from your own landlord to keep this specific cat, since you’ve had it for at least a few months already (and landlords are often a bit more relaxed about cats than dogs). You can also look for help from your local SPCA, talk to friends who may be interested, and look up guidelines for responsibly rehoming if keeping it yourself is not an option for the long run. Don’t set a deadline with your ex that leaves the ball in her court—determine a reasonable amount of time, tell her that if you haven’t heard from her by that date, you’re going to move ahead with your own arrangements, and then do so.

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Dear Prudence,
I was wondering if you could direct me to a good book for the partners of adults who have suffered childhood abuse (both physical and emotional). My boyfriend grew up in an idyllic, loving, supportive middle-class family. When I look back, the first thought that comes to mind is “I endured.” He does not seem to understand the level of trauma I went through and is either unwilling or unable to accept it and how it has shaped me as a person. He is an avid reader. I think a book discussing this topic might help him understand what I have been through. Is there anything you would recommend?

—Book for Boyfriend

There are a number of books that might prove helpful for an already-supportive person looking to understand more about the long-term effects of childhood abuse on a partner, but I’m concerned that your boyfriend seems uninterested in learning more about your traumatic childhood and that you describe him as “unable to accept it.” This suggests to me the problem is not one of insufficient information, but of insufficient empathy, curiosity, and willingness to listen. If you, the person he supposedly loves, share some of the painful details of your own upbringing firsthand and his response is bewildered indifference, then I’m skeptical that reading a book, even a very good book, will transform the orientation of his heart. While the fact that your boyfriend did not suffer from childhood abuse may mean he cannot directly identify with your experience, that does not (and should not!) mean he cannot listen, empathize, and support you.

You and your boyfriend may find either The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel A. van der Kolk or Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence by Judith Lewis Herman useful. I’d also recommend seeing a trauma-informed therapist, either together or individually. But the necessary ingredient for your boyfriend to learn more about what life is like for you as a survivor of childhood abuse is curiosity, not simply more information. If he doesn’t at some point seem genuinely willing to listen, I fear the problem may lie not in his library but in his heart.

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