Friend calls constantly. Any suggestions?

I have a friend who calls constantly. Let me state at the outset that he has very real, but very incurable, problems. But he calls at least once a day, often twice, occasionally three times for no other purpose but to moan and it is getting us down. I know–don’t answer the phone–but he will know it. Is there any polite way to discourage him? Part of the problem, as he reiterates constantly, is that my wife and I are his only remaining friends.

He is 89 years old and his significant other suffers serious dementia. They are not actually married (although he has an “equivalent to married” status under Quebec law, similar to common law spouse) and 25 years ago, long before there was any sign of dementia she signed a power of attorney to her son who therefore collects her collects her not inconsiderable pension and is trying to sell her house out from under my friend. SO is in a nursing home and my friend does not get along with the personnel there and they are punishing him by mistreating her (he claims–I have no way to verify this). But whatever is going on between him and the nursing home and between him and the son, I have heard it all over and over; I have no useful advice.

There are two ways to look:

How to be nice

How to be not not-nice
You can’t be nice, but you can be not not-nice. You MUST say something clear and definite, but at the same time I believe you can choose your words carefully to avoid any more discomfort than is necessary.

I don’t think it’s on purpose, but people in desperate situations often find extremely creative and new ways of misinterpreting what you say. I think it’s important to say this in a way that would take a superhuman effort to misinterpret.

In other words: Be kind, and at the same time be extremely specific and direct.

Also (part of the misinterpretation theme): DO NOT give a fake reason for anything. If you won’t say the real reason for something, then give no reason at all.

It sounds like there may be elder abuse both by the son and the care facility, both of these issues could be checked on which might produce progress. It would be up to your friend to do the checking, but that is an issue government agencies will look into.

More importantly, set boundaries. I can’t think of any friend that I would want to hear from multiple times per day, and I don’t think any friend I have would let me dump on them back like that. They have too much self-respect. Tell your friend that the complaints are causing a strain on this friendship, and what an appropriate amount of calls per week would be, if any.

I had to do this with my brother a few years ago. You can be nice, but you need to be firm. Establishing boundaries is not always comfortable, but it needs to be done. Remember, it is YOUR time and space that is being invaded. Tell your friend that you cannot take his calls at work, or at home until x-o’clock.

It is very considerate of you to listen to what he wants to say - that he needs an outlet and you are serving as that outlet is what he probably needs - someone to talk to (not with).

You say he’s repetitive? That sounds like early-ish dementia.
Has he got any family?

I am unable to stop myself from asking this question: does not his common law marriage status supersede the power of attorney? If I understand correctly, the “marriage” is the more recent.

I think the advise given to set boundaries is prudent.

What does this mean? Of course he will know that you didn’t answer the phone.

Maybe because it is a cell phone - and a reasonable assumption is that people keep their cell phone close-by. My brother calls me on my cell phone and I simply do not answer, and most of the time he does not leave a message, so I do not call him back unless I want to talk. It is a good question for the OP, tho -why can you just not pick-up? Can you expand on this?

When you do talk to him/her let them know that they should seek out other social activities, let them know they need it as their calling so much is not healthy and will eventually have people start ignoring them, keep at it, suggest some, and even research for them, over and over, till they do it or get tired that you are a broken record. They will either start looking into it or stop calling you.

I agree with Beckdawrek. The repetitive calls could be a sign of dementia. When he calls the third time in a day, he may not remember that he’s already called you twice.

The man needs help beyond what Hari Seldon is able to give. Are there social welfare agencies in Quebec that could check on the well-being of both the man and his wife? Is it possible a lawyer could help him (or them)?

When you say the son collects his mother’s pension, does that mean he manages her finances, or that he keeps the money for himself? I don’t know Canadian law, but I do know that in the U.S., power of attorney allows one to act in another’s interest, not to use that person’s assets for one’s own interest. It could be that there’s a crime happening here. Again, a social welfare agency or a lawyer could figure out whether the son’s actions are legal.

That could be, but in my experience many people who have no dementia whatsoever engage in exactly this, out of anguish and desperation. Talking to people about their troubles is the only respite they get from the pain and stress, and if they have few friends, then those friends get it all. Can be very wearying for the friends, of course.

I don’t know if it is polite or not, but don’t pick up when he calls.

If you decide you can only talk to him every other day, or whatever you can stand, call him every other day. If he asks why you didn’t pick up when he called, the polite answer is “sorry, I couldn’t talk to you right then.” If he persists, just keep repeating “sorry”. Don’t try to explain why - IME that doesn’t help.

Can he talk about anything else? Is he mobile, so that you can find something else to do together that doesn’t involve talking about his SO and his problems? See a movie? Go to a hockey game? Try to distract him.

If he doesn’t have anything else to talk about, maybe you can find something else. If you can’t, then limit it to whatever you can stand.


Is it possible, since he’s alone and aging, that he uses a daily call as a safety line? The point being if he doesn’t call, someone will worry and check. I call my elderly stepfather daily just to make sure he’s still upright. It would be miserable to die alone on the floor because no one knew there was a problem.


To answer some of the questions: He is not demented, or at least not detectably so. He believes that the son is using the money for himself. My friend is paying for the nursing home (in return for the right to stay in “her” house rent-free). I don’t know what rights a spousal equivalent has, but the house was always hers. He is in constant contact with a lawyer and one of the reasons he moans is what the lawyer is costing him. When his parents died they left him a fair amount of money but in an unbreakable trust and he gets only the interest. I know he has a brother somewhere and when he dies the money is bequeathed to the brother’s daughter. I have the impression he has no contact with the brother and no other relatives. His niece lives in California (where he is from, in fact) and I don’t think he knows her well.

He just called for the fourth time today (although the first time, he wanted to speak to my wife who was still asleep, and hung up immediately when I told him). I just don’t have the heart to tell him what a damned nuisance he has become. My bad, I know so don’t bother telling me. I guess I am doing the same thing to you that he does to me: venting.

So, why can’t you just let it go to voice mail - don’t pick-up?

You need to talk to him about this. I mean, understandably he needs some human contact, but if you just whack on like this til you get real aggravated and then really stop taking his calls, where’s he gonna be?

One other thing to try if a call is getting annoying is inventing an emergency - the pot has boiled over, you got a call you need to answer, someone is at the door. That gives you some kind of control over how long the call lasts.

But you can only do this two or three times, and then it becomes a problem in itself.

Answer your phone only when you actually want to talk. Period. Any other advice is probably worthless if you cannot do this much for yourselves.

If/when he speaks to you about possibly avoiding his calls be honest with him. You love him, care for him, really want to be there for him, he matters very much to you both. Explain your deep caring causes his repetitive lamenting of his woes to border now on exhausting you both emotionally. You care deeply, you want nothing more than to help him out and listen with attentiveness and interest but unfortunately feel you must limit contact to what you yourselves can handle. Compassion fatigue is real, your mental health is important if you’re to be a support system for him, which is very important to you. Apologize that you cannot be available to share his burdens two and three times a day, but you’d very much like to be available for the long game, and you can only beg his understanding that it must be this way, so you avoid burning out yourselves.

Good Luck!

Then maybe he’ll get the message. It is a lot more subtle than not answering.