By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’m writing to you about a complicated situation that exists around my mother, who is close to 90 years old and is an amazing woman. She lives in Los Angeles and is part of a thriving community. I live in New York, I have a brother in Chicago, and my sister lives in Baltimore.
My mother has always been a very active woman, involved with Emunah, book clubs, theater, movies, bridge games, you name it. For many years, she also worked part-time and entertained tremendously. Since she’s been widowed, close to ten years ago, she has somehow taken on the status of a very important woman within her community. I often try to figure out what it is about her that has women of all ages so mesmerized by her and thrilled to be in her presence. She just seems to have some magic quality that draws people in and keeps them wanting more of her. I also think younger women see her as a role model and aspire to be like her when they get older.
She’s made many new friends over the past ten years. Most of them are younger than I. She is invited out for every Shabbos meal, and if she isn’t traveling across the country, she gets invited out for every yom tov meal as well. Her life is definitely busier and more interesting than most people I know, including my own.
My siblings and I and some of her grandchildren have tried to encourage her to move closer to one of us. But her life is so full and exciting where she lives, she has no intention of leaving everything and everyone that she enjoys so much. And none of us can blame her.
As her friends fall all over each other, trying to be “her favorite,” over the years they have taken on all sorts of responsibilities to make my mother’s life run seamlessly. For instance, she has one friend who makes all of her travel arrangements; one who does grocery shopping for her; one who comes over once a week to put her medication in their proper boxes for the week. These are tasks that they happily took on. Mind you, my mother has no problem asking for what she needs. If her iPad is acting up, (yes, she uses an iPad), she’ll call one of her friends to come over and fix it. If her bulb burns out, no problem—just ask a friend to run over and replace it.
Because her friends are young, many of them are busy with young children of their own and their own hectic lives. But because they made the mistake of saying, years ago, “Don’t hesitate to call if you need anything,” she doesn’t hesitate to call. From a distance, my siblings and I have observed this phenomenon play out. We are intrigued, impressed, and surprised at the relationships she has developed over the years. We are grateful that her many friends are there for her, which allows all of us to go about our daily lives, knowing she is in good and loving hands.
The problem is that over the past few years, my mother has started to become a bit forgetful. Certainly, nothing outrageous for a woman closing in on 90, but she is getting older and in some ways it shows. Though my mother still runs around every day, I think her young friends are starting to feel like what started out as a fun undertaking might become a serious burden.
Her main “go to” friend, whom I’ll call Mindy, has been calling me lately and complaining, telling me that maybe my mother should be put into an assisted living home or at the very least, should have an aide. She questions why her children aren’t flying into L.A. constantly to check on her and why we are leaving her care to women who aren’t even family members. You have to understand that my mother still plays bridge every day and even attends a dance class once a week! She attends shiurim numerous times during the week, reads every current book, sees every current movie (which she drives herself to), and for all intents and purposes is doing just fine. But I believe Mindy is suddenly feeling overwhelmed because my mother will call her for every little and big thing that she needs help with. Mindy created this situation but is now not happy about the constant calls and is probably worried about how this situation could deteriorate over the next few years and whether she’ll be left holding the bag.
I work full time, as do my siblings. Though we get to L.A. once or twice a year to visit, and invite her to our homes for smachot or yom tovim, we are not in a position to spend weeks on end in L.A. Nor does my mother want to move near any of us. But Mindy is making us all feel like we are terrible, thoughtless, selfish children who are neglecting our mother. Of course, she doesn’t say so in so many words. But that’s the message that comes through to me.
I spoke to my mother several times, suggesting that it would probably be helpful if I found an aide who could stop by her home a few days a week, just to help her out with small things. I made a few calls from here in N.Y. and was able to find two women who would be willing to take on this job. But my mother won’t hear of it. She insists that she is fully capable of caring for herself and besides, her good friend Mindy is just around the corner and is happy to help her out whenever she needs help!
I am feeling so guilty. I don’t know what to do. I am feeling like the most rotten child any parent could have. I don’t know how to get rid of this awful feeling. Every time the phone rings and it’s Mindy, I get a terrible knot in my stomach. I am grateful that Mindy and some of the other women have been so good to my mother, but why is it my fault that she has grown to be dependent on them? Is it my fault?
I can’t force my mother to move here. I can’t force her to take in help when she is refusing. I can’t afford to fly into L.A. every few weeks to check in on my mother, and I’m feeling helpless and anxious over this situation. I have this awful feeling that Mindy and all of her friends are constantly bad mouthing me and my siblings and telling everyone how awful we are, how negligent. I’m feeling helpless in N.Y. What am I to do?
Your story makes me think of any system that sometimes has to entirely break down before it can be diagnosed properly and receive appropriate help. For instance, have you ever experienced driving your car and hearing the very slightest noise, but by the time you take it to the mechanic, the noise has disappeared and the mechanic is unable to find the source of any problem? Eventually, one day the car just plain has a meltdown and it is clear to you and all involved that serious intervention is necessary for you to ever safely drive your car again.
Comparing your mother to a car is not exactly a lovely analogy, but the point is on target. Right now, it sounds as though there is only the slightest indication that your mother is no longer the woman she was ten years ago and maybe even one year ago. Perhaps Mindy is picking up on some subtle signs that your mother is entering a stage of life that will require extreme intervention in the future, and she is worried that if she doesn’t speak up now, she may turn into your mother’s full time aide. That could be a scary thought for Mindy. But for now, by suggesting that your mother should be put into an assisted living situation or suggesting that you drop everything and spend mega doses of time in L.A. sounds like an extreme overreaction. From the way you describe your mother’s current lifestyle, she is far from needing any intense intervention. Mindy might be hearing slight noises that are making her feel uncomfortable right now, but any sort of a major upheaval is far from necessary at this stage of the game.
It is clear to me that Mindy is a big part of the problem. It sounds as though despite complaining to you, Mindy makes herself every bit as available to your mother as she ever was in the past and maybe even more so. As long as Mindy responds to your mother’s requests, your mother will not take you up on your offer of finding someone to help her out a few times a week. Why should she? She has Mindy.
It’s great that you found someone willing to help your mother out professionally, but your first plan of action should be speaking honestly with Mindy and explaining to her that as long as she (and whichever other friends are equally at your mother’s beck and call) continue to enable your mother to count on them, your mother will count on them. Mindy has to learn to say no to your mother here and there and create the necessary void so that your mother has the opportunity to realize that she could use some paid help. But Mindy can’t have it both ways. She can’t help to create the problem and then complain about it, in the interim, making you feel like a lousy daughter.
Speaking of feeling like a lousy daughter, where is that all coming from? It sounds to me as though you never asked Mindy or any of the other women to include your mother into their lives. It was their idea and their pleasure, and though they definitely helped your mother live a full and wonderful life in L.A., despite all her children living far away, your mother is no doubt adding to the quality of their lives as well.
As you’ve mentioned, you’ve invited your mother to move close to you, as have your siblings. Clearly, the life she is living in L.A. is presently too fulfilling for her to walk away from. Your mother is sharp enough of mind to understand that.
At this point in time, things seem to be running pretty smoothly. Mindy is projecting her own worries about the future onto you. I don’t doubt that if the time comes that your mother requires serious help, you and your siblings will step up to the plate. Mindy needs to know that as well. None of you are ignoring the situation, but you can’t fix something that isn’t broken.
I assume you call your mother daily, are sensitive enough to pick up on any changes in her speech or thought patterns, and continue to be on high alert should you need to take a more active role. But for now, perhaps you can find a friend of your mother’s to connect to every week or two, who is not quite as over-reactive as Mindy. Hopefully, you can get a more objective read on how your mother is doing from that friend.
It’s scary for everyone when the people we love get noticeably older and changes can be seen in their behavior. It can stir up all sorts of unresolved emotions. I think your mother’s aging process is rustling up all kinds of feelings within you and probably also within Mindy. Take a little time to examine what that might be about for you. As far as Mindy is concerned, I’ll wait for her letter!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.
In last week’s MindBiz article, the question involved a divorcé whose first ex-wife was pursuing a relationship with him, after they had both been married to other people. The article failed to point out that the halachah, Jewish law, in this situation is clear: A woman is not permitted to remarry a previous husband of hers if she had married another man in the meantime. The 5TJT regrets and apologizes for the oversight, and is pleased to know that so many of our readers are aware of this halachah and took the time to point it out.