I (30's, F) live with my mother where I help to pay bills, make repairs, and do chores in addition to my own expenses. Last year we had to put my father in a nursing home. He will never get better. While she is torn with grief over this—which I and others have repeatedly told her was impossible to avoid given my father's deteriorating condition and state of mind—she also seems to be in a relationship with a man she works with. (She's asked me to fix her phone, which makes me privy to graphic text messages she receives from this man.)
There is no way this would have been ok with my father—not that he is capable of having a conversation about it now. It has made our relationship very awkward. She will recount conversations with people whom she suddenly cannot remember the identities of. She goes on overnight trips to vague places with people she won't identify. She will disappear and become unreachable for hours at a time and then become uncharacteristically angry when I ask where she has been. She lies—frequently, badly. She drinks heavily and is otherwise checked out, preferring to communicate with my siblings through me. She'll offer to help me with something and then disappear or become too drunk to do so.
I have read you for long enough, Dan, that I know you'll want me to stay out of her personal life, but I am worried sick for her and don't know what to do. We cannot have an honest conversation about her drinking, the trips, or her social life. Pushing for details makes me feel like a bitch and a nag. But if she were to vanish on one of her trips, I wouldn't know where to begin looking for her. If I move out and restrict (what my siblings have done) or cut off contact, she will be isolated and likely lose our home. The most a therapist has been able to give me is a shrug and "that really sucks." I know my father would want me to take care of her, but I don't know how, and I'm doing a terrible job so far. I feel like I've lost both of my parents at the same time. Am I completely out of bounds? How do I talk to my mother about what she's doing? How do I proceed from here?
My Mother's Mother
As a general rule, yes, adult children should stay out of their parents' personal lives and vice-versa. But your case is an exception, MMM.
Few people discuss it openly. Couples who've spent decades together as lovers and equals—husbands, wives and partners—increasingly take on the roles of caregiver and patient as Alzheimer's disease progresses. Sex and emotional intimacy give way to an all-consuming responsibility. During those difficult months and years, the still-healthy partner may ache for someone with whom to talk, share a restaurant or movie date or have a physical relationship. Little social support exists for married caregivers who seek an intimate partner. Issues of faith, or concern over of the reactions from other family members and friends, cause people to bottle up these desires, says Donna Schempp, a licensed clinical social worker.
And this one:
Evers has seen more than one carer begin a new relationship while their partner was still alive. "They feel that the individual has progressed so far into dementia that there is only limited communication left—there may still be some, but very limited—and because this condition may go on for many years, the carer feels they've effectively lost the individual and wants to start their own new relationship." For example, John Rhys-Davies, who played the dwarf Gimli in the film Lord of the Rings, has been married for 40 years to a woman who has had Alzheimer's for 25 of them. He now has a daughter with a new partner, but refuses to divorce his wife.
Your mother needs to know that she's not alone: other men and women whose spouses are incapacitated by Alzheimer or brian injuries or dementia have remained married to their institutionalized spouses and embarked on new and loving relationships. People need companionship and intimacy and your mother hasn't betrayed your father—his needs have changed, his needs are being met; she has a right seek out someone who can meet her needs.
And right after you tell your mom she's not alone, MMM, you need to tell her it’s okay and that she doesn’t have to keep her boyfriend from you and that you support her and that she isn't doing anything she should feel guilty about. So there’s no need for her to hide or to lie—and no need to drink away the shame. (The drinking problem may be unrelated, but it sure sounds like it's tied to the guilt and the stress.)
Also, MMM: SUPPORT YOUR MOTHER—not in the drinking and the hiding and lying, but in the living. And if shame and guilt is the reason she's pulled away from your siblings or they've pulled away from her, send them the above links too.