Dear Captain Awkward:
I’m having a bit of trouble with my parents.
To start off with, I’m in my mid-40s and have been living on my own since I was 19. My parents are in their late 60s. They’re both retired, but Dad has been volunteering his time at a local school to give him something to do. Because of this, he is not home during the day.
In the last year or so, Mom has been unable to drive, so I have taken up driving her where she needs to go when my father can’t drive her. At first this wasn’t a problem, but more recently it has become a huge headache. For starters, she has tried calling me for a ride when I am at work, which is obviously a no-go. If I try to arrange things for another time, when I am available, she gets huffy and combative and acts generally displeased the whole time we’re out. This usually results in her complaining to my father about how uncooperative I am, which gets me a phone call from Dad telling me off for not being more helpful.
I really want to help my Mom, but I have my own life to worry about and I can’t change my schedule to fit hers all the time. It’s really difficult to approach her about the subject because she gets very defensive any time I bring it up. Do you have any scripts for talking with her about it? Also something to help with Dad would be nice too.
I really feel for your mom and her loss of independence and freedom. She is not the bad guy for needing a ride, for aging, for needing care. But also, things cannot go on this way.
I think you have to sit down with both of your parents and talk about driving and boundaries and schedules, and it’s not going to be easy, and they are probably going to give you a bunch of pushback.
I think first, you should look at your schedule and plot out:
- Life stuff – working out, grocery shopping, errands, making dinner for yourself. Stuff you need to do to be okay and happy.
- Social commitments
- Leisure time
- 1-2 regular time blocks every week where you will be willing and able to take your mom someplace. Be pretty conservative with these. One weeknight and one weekend day? Please don’t try to find little daily time windows or maximize available time in a way that they want to hear, you’ll make yourself nuts.
Make a chart with the days of the week and block out times you are busy as UNAVAILABLE and times you are free & able to drive your mom as AVAILABLE. Don’t spell out why you are unavailable, the absolute last thing you want to have to do is to justify every piece of your schedule to them. “I have another commitment, I’m sorry.“
Then sit down with them and say: “Mom, I am very happy to drive you and spend time with you when you need it, but the haphazard way we are handling it now is leading to a lot of fighting and I don’t think it’s good for any of us. So I made a schedule of times I am free to take you someplace. If you can schedule appointments, errands, etc. as much as possible for those windows, it would make it much easier for us to plan and have a regular day when everything can get done.”
They are almost certainly going to push these boundaries. What if she needs you during one of your busy times? Why are you being so bossy? WE’RE YOUR FAAAAAAAMILY. They are going to do some forced teaming stuff to try to make it your problem to figure out how your mom will get around when you are not available. I say this with some confidence, because your dad calls you to yell at you instead of driving home to pick up your mom himself.
Outside of those regular times, your dad can find a way to handle it, or your mom can call a car service or taxi or a friend. There are sometimes resources available for seniors for things like getting back and forth to medical appointments, so I would call your local Department on Aging or Senior Center and do some research into what’s available. But honestly, I would refrain from making suggestions and let them work through it. There’s something in here about their marriage and some negotiating they need to do between themselves about how your mom’s changing circumstances mean that her husband has to step in and care for her without making it something she has to beg for. He’s not allowed to just abdicate this to you and browbeat you for not doing enough. There is also some coming to terms with “what is the long-term plan here as we both age? What would we do if we didn’t have a daughter to help us?” that you all need to deal with over time. I think the payoff for you getting involved in those discussions at this time is extremely low, which is why I suggest a script of:
“I don’t have an answer to that right now. I just wanted you guys to have a simple way to schedule things so that I can give you the best help I can give.”
I would try to leave as soon as possible after saying that and let them discuss (and complain all they want!) in your absence.
If they really push you or try to guilt you about not being 100% always available, push back. “I want to help you guys out, but not at the cost of losing my job or us constantly fighting. I have told you the times that I can make something work, and I need you to respect them. I am your daughter and I love you, but that doesn’t mean I can be a 24-7 on-call taxi service, and it is unfair and unreasonable to get angry at me about that.“
Then, see what they do. I predict they will pay lip service to making it work, but that they will test your boundaries almost immediately. Things you can do:
Don’t take their calls when you’re at work. Switch off your phone if necessary. Call them when you are done with work.
Do not get sucked into discussions about why you can’t drop everything. “Sorry mom, I won’t be able to make that work. Can’t talk now, but I’ll check in tomorrow about our regular Friday plans.“
If your dad calls you to yell at you, don’t pick up.
In fact, if you find that they are always calling you and have an expectation of immediate response and interaction on their schedule, take a page from Comrade Physioproff’s book and do some work to reset expectations about how often and on what terms you talk. Caller ID means that you don’t have to pick up the phone immediately. Phones can be hung up or not answered for many reasons.
- I was driving!
- I was in the bathroom!
- Forgot to charge my phone, sorry.
- Had it on silent for a meeting, forgot to take it off.
- Busy getting work done.
- In a checkout line, need to not be on cell phone.
- Was in the middle of another call.
If they are nice to you and respectful of boundaries, they get a lot of your time, attention, and help. If they constantly call you and complain, they get very perfunctory attention. You can decide how much or how little of that you want to communicate directly to them. They might figure out that constant calling & yelling gets them a brick wall, but being respectful gets them a helpful daughter (a few preset times/week).
Whenever you set a boundary that wasn’t there before and start to enforce it, things become tense and you may be tempted to scrap the whole thing. In cases where everyone loves each other and is acting in good faith, these tensions are temporary and people will readjust to the new boundaries. Give it a little time, let things roll off your back, and stick to the times you are actually free and willing to help and you should see at least some changes.
Last year I married this amazing man. Second marriage for both of us, after terrible first ones. We have a strong, healthy relationship with lots of communication, fun, and love.
Husband’s widowed mother (in her early 70s) and grandmother (in her late 90s) live with us. Actually, they lived in his home before I moved in. MIL is grandma’s caretaker. She also volunteers and is politically active. These are positive developments, as MIL was depressed and withdrawn for years after being widowed. I sincerely like and respect MIL. She’s been supportive, respects our privacy, and treats us as adults.
MIL has trouble setting boundaries for herself, and it’s spilling stressfully into our lives. Last year she asked if she could foster a cat for two weeks, then brought home two pregnant cats who had 9 kittens – and parasites. Add the 6 cats we already have, and we had 17 cats – for two months.
She’s never been diagnosed as a hoarder, but we can barely use most of the rooms in the house. She recycles, but only takes stuff to the local drop off every few months. She hangs on to plastic containers, broken furniture, even spoiled food.
She polices the trash, pulling things out that we throw away. We often secretly drive our trash to other locations to throw it away, but if she catches us on the way out, there’s a trash interrogation. We try to have polite but honest discussions about the state of the house, but they all end with “But I need this stuff because of reasons.”
To her credit, she started working hard to keep the kitchen cleaner when we asked her to so we can at least cook. I know she’s tired, having taken on too much, but she also refuses to accept help – whether with recycling, taking care of grandma, or her depression.
Asking her to move out isn’t an option. She’ll move out when grandma goes to a nursing home or dies. While that will be sometime in the next few years, there’s still this indefinite amount of time in which my trash is a prisoner in its own home, we can’t have friends or family visit, and we have to live with the mess and smell. The oversized room over the garage works as bedroom and retreat from the chaos for Husband and me, but we don’t know what to do with the trash interrogations. Any tips on how to keep our sanity in the short term? Maybe a script for when she asks “Why are you throwing *that* away?” or when she’s explaining why she rescued yet another broken appliance or plastic container?
Oh, how stressful and upsetting.
I think your husband should try to get his mom diagnosed and get her some professional help as soon as possible. I don’t think that’s something you can do, as the newcomer, but hoarding is (or is part of) very real conditions that can be treated. There are some resources and links for children or families of hoarders here. Giving it a name and working with what is really happening is going to be very important. You said she is reluctant to accept help, maybe you could start small with a simple medical checkup.
Asking her to move out is not an option, you said. This is a pity. Is YOU moving out an option? It is an unwelcome one, to be sure, and an expensive one, to be sure, but it is something your husband can raise in talking with her. “Mother-in-Law, we need you to get some help and deal with this. You are making us (and your elderly mother) live with a stench and spoiled food. It is very unhealthy for all of us, and we can’t be around it. Are you saying you will force your own son to move out of his house rather than go to a doctor and help us all work together on making a happy and safe home?”
Because my dear Letter Writer, you cannot live with this for three -several more years. A studio apartment that you share that has no hoarder might be better than the health problems, constant tension, and probable divorce if this continues. I believe you that your husband’s ex was not a good fit for him, but as an outsider I can see a perfectly nice and compatible person run, run, running for the hills at the situation you describe. I also think that you should get some mental health support yourself, and encourage your husband to get counseling as well. You are going to find this illness of hers warping your reality and sense of what is normal in all kinds of ways, and you’re going to want someone outside of the family who knows the whole story to be your constant reality check.
Whatever you decide, it’s important that you and your husband be on the same team about this, and have a united front.
- You need to be able to live comfortably and safely in your home and not have it be a health hazard.
- You need to be able to invite family and friends to your home, and you are going to set an overall house goal for that to be possible.
- Fighting constantly over trash is not normal and it is not okay, and you will fight together to prevent it from becoming the new normal and from letting her illness control everything about the way you live.
- No more animals in the house. Period.
The hoarding sites I read stress autonomy. She is an adult who gets to decide what happens to her own stuff, so don’t throw things that belong to your Mother-in-Law away. However, she shares a house and you can ask her to keep her things out of common spaces, like the kitchen. Her room might indeed become horrifying, but if she can confine her piles there that is a win for you.
And just as she gets to decide about her things, you get to decide about your things. So a general script for “Why are you throwing that away?” might be:
“It is mine and I do not want it in the house anymore.”
Her response will be: “It’s perfectly good! I will use it!”
And you can say: “I’m sure you are right! But it is mine and I do not want it in the house anymore.“
And she will cry and maybe try to take it back and you can say:
“This isn’t actually a negotiation. If it’s hard for you to watch or be around me when I take the garbage out, I suggest you go back inside now.“
And then you leave and you throw it away. And she will probably have a lot of feelings about that, and it will be very difficult to watch or engage with those feelings. But maybe sending a message that you can live with her upset feelings, you just can’t live with spoiled food and stench will do some tiny bit of good, for you.
Hoarding resources also emphasize using logic to point out how the hoarding is interfering with the person’s goals. Does she want to see family more? Does she want her son to stay close and be happy and proud to have people over to his house?
I think it would help to get her to agree to some procedures for spoiled food. “Mom, can we agree that old food has got to be thrown away? We know that you might have some strong feelings that come up when we try to throw it away, but we still HAVE TO throw it away, or we will all get sick. We’re not doing it to hurt you, please trust us.“
Get her to agree to that, if you can. And then when she resists throwing away old food, you can say “I know this is hard, but you know and I know that we can’t have rotting food in the house.”
Her illness is setting you all up to live in filth and constantly fight with each other. I think you should try to get her some help, I think that if she can’t or won’t get help that you should move out for a few years and reclaim the house (ugh…this prospect, I cannot really imagine it, but I believe you cannot stay as things are), and I think you should be very firm about trash removal (your stuff, your husband’s stuff, rotting food). It may feel extremely cruel, guilt-inducing, and terrifying to engage with her emotional response when you do try to improve things around the house, but it’s important to say this: She will have crushing anxiety attacks when you try to throw things away, but she has that much anxiety all the time, anyway, no matter what you do. Your safety and survival > her feelings. The choice right now is:
Let your Mother-In-Law hoard everything, do not confront her + She has a mental illness that makes her feel very anxious and bad and ashamed + The house is filthy and unlivable.
Confront her, try to get her some help, and try to set some firmer boundaries about taking care of the house, maybe have a lot of fights + She has a mental illness that makes her feel bad, anxious, and ashamed + maybe the house gets a bit more livable for you.
There is no happy option where everything is clean and she feels okay without a lot of hard work and some serious negotiations and conflict, where you just stay cool and hang in there and suddenly someday everything gets better and you get a prize for being the nicest and most accommodating daughter-in-law.
She would never have chosen to behave like this, but right now her illness is ruling all of you and forcing you into a world where she feels bad all the time and you live in filth all the time and no one is getting anything that they want. So you get to try to take some steps for your own well-being, even if it feels like you are hurting her.
Readers who care for aging parents, have you successfully dealt with any of these situations? The thread is yours.