Your Aging Mother Wants Constant Attention: How to Deal

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Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

If you have an aging mother who wants constant attention, you’re not alone. You may be the primary caregiver and, therefore, the person that your mother reaches out to for attention. Or perhaps you have had a complicated relationship with your mother for years, and her need for constant attention has never waned.

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Regardless of why your mother wants constant attention, dealing with it can be extremely frustrating and exhausting. A desire to care for your mother can exist alongside a strong desire to do less and less for her. Getting this situation under control will help both of you by improving your relationship and reducing your stress.

Constant attention can take many forms, including calling several times a day, making demands on your time, and complaining about not attending correctly to a loved one’s needs. If it feels like constant attention to you, then validate that to yourself. It’s easy to minimize constant demands on your time. Even if you try everything and your mother continues to want constant attention, we have some ways you can cope. 

Why Do Older Parents Seek Attention?

Older parents seek attention for a variety of reasons. At times, your aging parent might talk with you about why they are seeking attention, but other times you will need to try and consider some possibilities and address those if you can. Now is also a good time to do some advance planning with our checklist for aging parents

Memory problems

The incidence of dementia increases with age. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are frightening and confusing conditions that can increase anxiety and irritability. If your parent has a cognitive impairment, a constant need for attention could be part of their memory problems. 

Your parent may not remember that they asked an hour ago for something from you. The constant repeating of the same requests over and over again can get maddening, but your parent isn’t to blame. Your mother might not remember what she has asked. 

Loneliness

Loneliness in older adults is a serious health problem. Loneliness can result from social isolation and increases the risk for anxiety, depression, and dementia. Over time, your parent may have become gradually more and more isolated without you even knowing it. 

Often, when a parent needs constant attention, they’re lonely and looking to you for connection. Look for these signs and changes that your parent may be suffering from loneliness:

  • Your parent is no longer driving. Without access to activities, social events, or even household tasks like shopping, your parent could become isolated.
  • Your parent has lost friends. Your parent may have lost friends to death or moved to assisted living or a nursing home. 
  • Your parent does not get visits from family. Let’s face it; you’re busy. Before you know it, weeks have gone by, and you haven’t visited your parent. You and your family may be the most important contact they have. 
  • Your parent has lost physical function. Loss of physical function such as mobility can restrict their movement and cause confinement. 

Loss of independence and autonomy

If your aging parent is losing their independence and autonomy, they can become needy and attention-seeking. The need for constant attention is a way of exerting control and seeking validation from you. 

As people age, the loss of independence and autonomy can become devastating to cope with. Look for these signs that your parent is losing their independence:

  • They’re starting to depend more and more on you and other family members for care and chores.
  • They have chronic medical conditions that limit their ability to do things for themselves, such as shopping, going to the doctor, or engaging in preferred activities.
  • Eyesight and hearing impairment limit their ability to communicate and connect socially.
  • Memory problems contribute to increasing dependence on you and other family members for care and decision-making.
  • Constant calling is a way of reaching out for a connection.

Siblings won’t help

If your siblings won’t help care for your aging parents, you are the primary person responsible. And that means you bear the brunt of complaints and the need for attention. If you have siblings who help, it can make a huge difference when you can “divide and conquer” tasks and respond to requests. 

Personality characteristics

If you have a parent who was always demanding attention, it’s unlikely that characteristic will change as they get older, and it could even worsen. What might have been a manageable situation early on is made worse by all of the changes associated with aging. You might be surprised when past conflicts and other related problems rear up and become stronger than ever.

Anxiety and fear

Losing autonomy and control, becoming more dependant on others, and worrying about money can create a bubble of anxiety and fear. When people are afraid, they look for reassurance which can translate into attention-seeking. 

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How to Deal With Your Mother Who Needs Constant Attention

Dealing with a mother who needs constant attention will take some willpower, calm, and a plan. If you are living with your aging parent, the task will be even more challenging because it’s harder to escape the situation. 

Set limits

Asking your mother to set limits probably won’t work, so be prepared to set your own and stick to them. As hard as this will be, have faith that having boundaries will help your mother learn to cope independently, without relying on you as much. 

Here are some examples of how to set limits:

Designate calling times

If your mother calls you at all times of the day and night, designate one time per day for her to call and discuss any issues. Otherwise, let her know you won’t accept her calls.

Designate visiting times

Your mother may be attention-seeking when you visit by making multiple requests or complaining about your care. Limit your visits and the time you spend with her. Let your mother know your visitation schedule and the exact amount of time you have before you need to leave.

Consider off-limit topics

If your mother continues to want attention around tasks or topics you’ve visited over and over again, suggest that you move on to other areas of discussion. Another idea is to ask her to email her concerns so that you can address those or refer them to other family members.

Ask for help 

If you are the primary caregiver and bearing the brunt of the constant need for attention, ask siblings or other family members to step in. Let your mother know that you’re going to refer requests to specific family members. 

You may also consider hiring in-home care, which is a cost but could be well worth it. If you can bring clergy or close friends into the situation, that might help as well. Perhaps if your mother hears from another person that she is too demanding, it might get through. 

Walk away

You may need to consider walking away, at least for a while. Ethically you can’t refuse to take care of an aging parent, but if you have put supports in place, a break might be good for both of you. Let your mother know that the time away is temporary. Refer her to other family members or a geriatric care manager to get her needs met. You never know; this may turn into a permanent solution.

How to Talk to Your Mom About Needing Constant Attention

Talking to your mother about needing constant attention should be handled carefully. You probably don’t want to damage your relationship irreparably. But having open and honest discussions might alter her behavior for the better. It’s worth a try.

Address how your mother’s constant attention affects you

Consider this suggestion in the context of your relationship with your mother. You don’t want to sound like you’re complaining, but on the other hand, your mother may need to know how her constant need for attention is affecting your life. Remind her of your responsibilities--job, children, spouse, etc. Tell her that her continuous attention-seeking is negatively affecting your life.

Stay calm

We have already established that sometimes the need for constant attention comes from fear, anxiety, or loss of independence.  If you get upset, your mother may escalate. Remember that her emotions are raw and unpredictable. The calmer you are, the more likely she’ll be to hear what you’re saying and respond to suggestions. Consider coming back for multiple conversations if you don’t have success the first time.

Address issues

Evaluate your mother’s situation. Does she need to get out more and socialize? Is she feeling left out or trapped where she lives? Is she struggling with medical or mobility issues? Try to solve these problems by allowing her to engage, provide transportation, or hire in-home help for companionship. If your mother has dementia, hiring in-home care could be more important than ever to keep her occupied and safe. 

Talk about her concerns

Generationally, some older adults are reluctant to talk about what’s bothering them. Sometimes the problems you are getting hammered with aren’t the real issue. If you can, sit down and talk with your mother about what she’s feeling and experiencing. Be as empathetic and receptive as you can during the conversation. Invite her to express her feelings and be open with you.

Be honest about your limits

At some point, you may have to be bluntly honest about how much you are willing to take. Let your mother know that you love and care about her, but you have to protect your own mental and physical health as well. No one wants to feel abandoned, and you’ll want to take care in communicating that you are not abandoning her but setting limits. 

When Your Aging Mother Wants Constant Attention

Along with the other things you have to worry about in caring for your aging mother, the constant need for attention can add to your stress.  Approach this problem with compassion and a resolve not to let it consume your life.  By setting limits early, you can avoid a worse situation later. You need to protect your own health and well-being, first and foremost. 

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