Surviving the weekend with my cranky right-wing grandparents.
July 7, 2009 8:14 AM   Subscribe

My elderly grandparents live 45 minutes south of Orlando. My husband and I are visiting them next weekend. What do we do while we're there to minimize drama and maybe have a bit of fun?

First of all, I am not close to them at all, and am really only visiting them because my grandfather is seriously ill and this may be the last opportunity to see him. I honestly do not enjoy spending time with them. Their political and religious views are 180 degrees from mine and 145 degrees from my husband's, so those are topics to avoid. They're extremely racist, and while I've learned to keep my mouth shut (given that it won't change anything), my (white) husband reacts strongly to racial slurs. Neither of them understand our (technical) career fields, so we can't talk about that. They don't have hobbies besides watching TV so nothing to talk about there. There is all kinds of family drama that my grandmother just loves to bring up, and I don't want to discuss that, especially since their treatment of my cousin before his suicide is an extremely sore point with me.

The drama has started before we're even there - they're insisting on picking us up at the airport (orlando) even though they're extremely dangerous drivers and I've already booked a rental car. They want me to cancel the rental car - at this point I'd be eating the fee since it's through Priceline and there's no-cancellation policy. My mother has written me emails on how to tiptoe around their preferences and eccentricities.

My husband and I are extremely stressed by a recent move and job/economic insecurity, and this trip just feels like a burden at this point. Yet I want to make it somewhat enjoyable if at all possible. My grandfather can barely leave the house, not only because he's physically ill but because he's bipolar and frequently severely depressed. My grandmother likes to go shopping, etc., but tires very quickly. What the heck can we do for 4 days? I don't mind driving to Orlando or Tampa or points in between.

Aside: I would really prefer air-conditioned activities as I get heatstroke easily (and I can't imagine the heat would be good for 80-somethings either).
posted by desjardins to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea if your grandparents like to cook, but the big family dinners were always my favorite part of spending time with my grandparents. You and your husband could escape the house to pick up the shopping, and then maybe they could teach you how to make an old family favorite? I know my grandma always appreciated some help with dishes and clean up as she got older, as well.

I would spend all day with my grandpa nodding obediently as he chainsmoked and insulted every race and nationality except the one he belonged to (it's kind of funny in retrospect, I think he was just making some of the stereotypes up), but we were all happy sitting around the table and I can still taste the greasy thick spaghetti sauce cooked for hours with not just meatballs, but also hot Italian sausage and sweet Italian sausage and braised spare ribs.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:22 AM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

First off: rent your own car. Just tell them you pre-paid and it can't be cancelled, so you might as well get it. You'll be SO much more independent with your own transportation. If you know you're going to the 4pm matinee with your husband (air conditioning, a chance to sit without talking, etc.) it's much more bearable than having to ask for their car, dealing with their instructions or weirdness or "oh well, sorry you can't go to the movies - grandfather really needs a new prescription right at this moment." It will give you a sense of independence --- just be firm. It'll put you in a good mindspace too to be firm on this first decision - "can't wait to see you. We land at noon so we'll be at your house by 2:30 at the latest!"

Other stuff:
- rent a movie (Young@heart appeals to all ages)
- do a puzzle together (like a big jigsaw puzzle) or play a game - something that keeps conversation about the task at hand
- do something around the house for them - pick up some hanging baskets, prepare some food, fix the toilet/faucet/change lightbulbs. Keeping busy on low-stress activities will keep from conversations wandering.
- if they DO wander into directions that you would rather not deal with, just a firm but polite, "we have really different opinions on this. I respect that your opinion differes from mine so let's just keep it to happier topics for this nice visit." If they insist, just repeat your line. Go for a walk (or a drive! In YOUR car!) if you need some breathing room.

Good luck. I know it feels like a burden but something in you must have been urging you to see him one last time. I hope the balance tips away from horrid and towards pleasant while you're there.
posted by barnone at 8:26 AM on July 7, 2009 [7 favorites]

Please do NOT cancel the rental car, as you will need means of escape on at least one occasion to retain your sanity. I would just inform your grandparents that you are unable to cancel the reservation at this point and would be happy to meet them at the airport, but that you'll need to drive separately. Oy.

I'd avoid All-That-is-Disney if I were you, because it's going to be blazing hot and crowded. I'm getting panicky just thinking about it. Same probably goes for Busch Gardens, although it'd be less crowded, but probably slightly more smelly. You could always take in some movies at Universal Studios' Island of Adventure. Maybe spend some quality time in IKEA Orlando?
posted by scarykarrey at 8:27 AM on July 7, 2009

Keep rental car. Maybe tell them that you're going home after 3 days ("white" lie?) and then once you drive away, go to Disney or Sea World, or Universal in Orlando by yourselves. Then get a cheap room just for that night and fly home the next day.
posted by heather-b at 8:32 AM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Tell us the name of the town they live in, please. Tampa, St. Pete, Sarasota all have interesting stuff to see.
posted by mareli at 8:32 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

My wife's parents spend their winters in what sounds like the same area (The Villages; we fly in and out of Orlando to visit) and, while I get along with them quite well, I always start getting low on conversation topics after a few days. Local Florida stuff is always a good, neutral conversation source: the suckiness of taking a tollway everywhere, the evening-news craziness evident in the country around Orlando, etc. If they're in fact in The Villages (or another, similar age-segregated community) you can pretty much mine the weirdness of the location for endless talk.
posted by COBRA! at 8:37 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Set a break time that you use each day. This visit will be stressfull on them, too (physically at the very least) and they will need downtime. Maybe some together time early in the day, out to lunch and then a firm suggestion from you that they need to rest, and you and your husband will give them the opportunity to recharge by getting out of their hair for a couple of hours. Is your mother still relegated to a child role with them, always trying to please? Be firm, but kind; you are an adult with a spouse, both of you are capable of making your own plans (KEEP THE RENTAL).

Meet again for dinner and a scenic drive and keep the conversation directed - "What was your school like?""What was my mother like as a child?"" How did you get your first job?"
Get them talking about the past and family history you may not know.

They're old so after an early dinner you can call it a night by 8:00.
posted by readery at 8:44 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I agree with readery, find out as much about their childhoods (and your parents childhoods) as possible. It's valuable information you'll still treasure when they're gone.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:54 AM on July 7, 2009

Do NOT cancel the rental car. It's a necessity here, where mass transit sucks, unless you want to be their captive audience for the entire trip.

It is EXTREMELY (high nineties and humid) hot here right now, so you might find Busch Gardens or the Universal parks (my perennial picks over Disney) just too uncomfortable to deal with. If not, you can get, at any of the local stores, a pick-two ticket to visit two parks at a reasonable cost. You might need a local resident for that, if you can get the grands to help you out.

The shuttle's taking off on the 11th, if you want to drive over and see it up close. Even if you don't get out close to the pad, it's worth hanging out at the beaches nearby to see it if you've never seen a launch before.

Come visit me and take a swim in our pool. We're about an hour and a half from where you'll be, I'd reckon, closer if you visit the Cape. Mefimail me.
posted by misha at 8:56 AM on July 7, 2009

Bring a video camera and tell them you want to do an oral history project about the town they grew up in - if you use place instead of saying specifically you want to hear about them, they may not get too self conscious. You can segue from there into family memories. So they won't get all camera shy, tell them you're going to just use still photos & their voices; ask about where they grew up, what they did over summer vacation, etc. People in their eighties remember a lot about their childhoods as a general rule and they really enjoy talking about them. That gives you at least an hour each day with a project; projects are good. I'm going to nth the suggestion to help them out around the house; chances are they'll have a whole bunch of little things they want fixed or changed. Oh and elderly people like going to the movies; just pick it carefully.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:02 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've used the "oh, I really need to get out and stretch my legs" routine when things got slow when visiting grandparents and I felt the need for some space. I may have just walked around the corner and sat at a coffee shop or roamed around a local store, but it helped to have some down time built in before things got too stressful. I just made it part of my afternoon routine while visiting and told them I'd be back in an hour or so. Or maybe you could walk to your car :) and drive somewhere for an hour or so.

Otherwise I tried to do things to help around the house (cleaning fans, bathroom vents, etc. or helping organize high closet or kitchen shelves) that kept us moving around and less likely to talk about touchy topics ("where do you want this pot?" doesn't transition easily into "how 'bout that new president?" very easily).

Depending on the family drama, you may want to see if they have old photo books of themselves when they were younger and get them to tell stories of those times. Or if you have some photographs of yourself with them when you're younger, they might enjoy looking at those. However, the visits can still be generally uncomfortable and generally result in lots of silent TV watching together.
posted by BlooPen at 9:04 AM on July 7, 2009

Seconding readery--do not try to spend all day, every day with them.

I'm also wondering why you're bothering to visit at all--for four days no less. Why not cancel, citing the financial burden? If you truly want to go through with the trip, why? Why see your grandfather again one last time, if this last time is likely to be as unpleasant as previous visits? I'm not asking to be snarky, I'm asking because articulating your concrete reasons (you want to ask about family history, you want to share a particular experience with your grandparents, etc.) could help you to plan the visit specifically toward those goals. Having a set schedule in mind, with set goals, and a plan to take breaks every day will help to minimize the drama.

That said, you should also have an "OK, we're done" threshold: your grandma can't stop talking about family drama, despite your asking her to stop, you leave the house; your grandfather makes racist comments, despite your asking him to change the subject, you leave the house. Whether you go for a drive or head for the airport: you need to be prepared to remove yourself from unpleasant and unhealthy situations as they arise.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:18 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing the family history suggestions. Hopefully, childhood tales can center around places, hobbies, and school and not digress into how much better it was before the whomevers (minorities, liberals, godless communists) came and messed things up - I have relatives that I have to steer away from historical crap like that. I ask about cars, or clothes, or food, usually.

For coping strategies, I have two. First, if I have to keep from screaming when someone like that goes on a rant, I play games in my head with the conversation. They say "illegal aliens", I picture little grey dudes in spaceships. Second, I take my embroidery. If you can sew/knit/embroider it can make watching the TV and awkward conversation a whole lot more bearable. Good luck!
posted by pointystick at 9:24 AM on July 7, 2009

Do they have a computer? You could take Grandma shopping for a computer, and then spend a part of each day teaching them to use it.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:40 AM on July 7, 2009

Definitely ask about further back history--if they were a part of your life when you were a kid, ask them about YOU. My grandparents talk a bit about their childhoods, but their really favorite subject is ME as a kid. All the cute, silly, stupid, embarrassing things that I did. I've heard all the stories, but I don't mind hearing them again--it's obvious that they love to remember them.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:41 AM on July 7, 2009

I agree with not going at all.

But, you might get on for the trial membership, mine the census and draft registration .pdfs, check Ancestry's list of newspapers for one that would be relevant (you can search by surname), and look at user-submitted family tree info (take those with a grain of salt).

You can get a lot of use out of the trial membership, and that'll give you some conversation-starters and stuff to prompt their memory.
posted by jgirl at 9:59 AM on July 7, 2009

I think you can still have a good time visiting your grandparents. Keep the conversation light. Change the subject if it gets too heavy and try to enjoy them for who they are. You'll keep busy with early bird dinners and helping out around the house. They may enjoy showing you around town. Let them.

One night you and your husband could head over to Maitland to the Enzian Theater. It's a lovely place. I highly recommend. Show up early, buy your ticket, and have a drink at the lovely outdoor bar. Go hungry because they have some yummy food to eat while you watch the movie.

I could recommend many other things -- everything from the Kennedy Space Center to the Cirque du Soleil show at Downtown Disney, but I'm not sure of your budget, and how much you want to be away from the house and your grandparents.

Good luck and have fun.
posted by Fairchild at 10:12 AM on July 7, 2009

as for getting around the rental car + their insistence on picking you up, tell them they can still meet you at the airport if they want -- you can follow them home in your rental car. Cite how easy it will make finding their house, since it's been a while and you don't remember how to get there.
posted by changeling at 11:06 AM on July 7, 2009

Is there any old music you can enjoy with them? My mom has a stash of Elvis movies to watch with my grandfather when he visits. Just this weekend I watched this with my mom, and it made her very happy. (though we were having a great time together anyway, but it was a little extra for her, you know?)
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:22 AM on July 7, 2009

oh also - old movies - ask what their favourite movie actors were, then go rent some movies.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:31 AM on July 7, 2009

They don't have hobbies besides watching TV so nothing to talk about there.

Figure out what TV shows they're into and watch a few episodes or just read up on them on wikipedia. Seriously, at my one of my old jobs, all anyone talked about was TV. There's plenty to talk about there.

Seconding the IKEA in Orlando, or at least the huge freakin mall that's there. Sure, it's a mall. But large air conditioned spaces in Florida are beautiful things. I wouldn't be surprised if you could get some sort of motorized chair thingy for your grandma there.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:47 AM on July 7, 2009

Oh, and if it becomes super unbearable and you and your dude don't mind a two hour drive, send me a mefimail. I'd be glad to show you Gainesville. :)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:49 AM on July 7, 2009

Ask them to tell you stories from their childhood, or how they met, or about their first house or first jobs. Even if you have heard them before. Heck, especially if you have heard them before.

A good way to circumvent touchy topics is to encourage the other person to talk forever about something they love talking about.

Also, you won't be able to do this later. :(
posted by rokusan at 1:05 PM on July 7, 2009

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