how to help a grieving grandma
March 19, 2010 7:53 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to help my mother deal with all her friends dying of old age?

My mother is in her 70s and all of her friends/former coworkers/relatives are dying. My father died at 49 and that was a big shocker for everyone, but then nobody else in her world died for several decades. Her husband/my stepfather, who takes excellent care of himself and is very fit, had emergency bypass surgery 6 months ago and that really threw them for a loop, although now he is back to golfing and working out. Five of her friends have died in quick succession over the past year. This morning she called me to tell me another old friend of the family had died; he'd been diagnosed just after Christmas with cancer. She was very upset, and this is a woman who never shows emotion, believe me.

She lives 6 hours away and we're not terribly close, typical mother/daughter stuff over the years. Almost none of our family is very close at all, lots of water under the bridge. But I feel awful for her and I'd like to help in some way. I would imagine this is pretty typical for people in that age group ... I don't know if it's the loss of friends, facing her own mortality, fearing the loss of her husband, or reliving the loss of my dad. Some combination of those, most likely. So what can I do from this (literal and figurative) distance? (Besides visit, I can't do that right now.) Thanks in advance for any suggestions.
posted by headnsouth to Human Relations (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If she's at all religious (or even just spiritual--Unitarian Universalists make all seekers welcome, including agnostics), encourage her to check out faith communities (or Zen temples, or whatever) in her community. The vibrant, happy folks I know in their 70s are all members of churches or other (secular) community groups with a good mix of young and old. It's an excellent way to find friends she won't necessarily out live, and get support from her own peers who are in the same situation, age-wise.
posted by availablelight at 8:15 AM on March 19, 2010

Best answer: People are leaving, and she's seeing her community shrink. Make sure she knows you're there for her. You say you're not really close; do you want to be? Two tactics can help - quantity and quality of contact - if you're happier not being particularly close, you can focus on quantity and sweet gestures, rather than depth of conversation, and it'll still be a help to her.
Consider calling her pretty frequently just to check in, 5 minute phone call or so. My mom sends me notes that are nothing but one half sheet of paper with a few sentances about her garden and a couple of newpaper clippings (comics, recipes, photos of things in the hometown, advice columns she thinks (?!) are relevant, whatever), and I think it's sweet just to know she's thinking of me.
On the quality front, you're probably doing okay if she's willing to be upset around you and talk about how she's feeling about mortality, but if you feel like you "never really talk", there are ways to warm up to it. It's hard to demand that she share her feelings with you, but one shortcut to making it a closer relationship is to share your feelings with her. If you imagine she's your best friend, and talk about something complex (a challenge at work, your worry about a friend, the crazy politics at your book group, a decision you're making about buying a car/fancy boots/whatever) then you'll be learning about each other in that conversation. The more comfortable you are having a discussion (rather than an opinion-bludgeoning) about something non-critical to your relationship, the more you'll be able to talk about things specifically relevant to the two of you - and the more comfortable you are talking about your life, the more comfortable she'll be talking about hers, but remember to ask open-ended but leading questions. Somewhere in between "How have you been lately?" (too vague) and "Did you confront you neighbor about her spraying weedkiller everyplace like I told you to?" (demanding information), more on order "how's your geranium bed looking this week?" or "got anything good from the library lately?" (you're providing a topic but not a demand).
But yes, like available light says, helping her expand her community locally is good, too.
posted by aimedwander at 8:21 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry yes, I should add that she's very Catholic, and that's been a comfort to her in the past. I am a zen-practicing atheist who attends a UU church. It's not a source of friction, but it's also not something I can actively draw on to help her (like for example praying together).
posted by headnsouth at 8:55 AM on March 19, 2010

See if the church offers mini trips/vacations. She can stay social and get out of the house exploring new things.

Can she move to a 55+ community (not an old age home but more of a targeted real estate neighborhood)?

While not close, you can take her on vacation somewhere she's always wanted to go. I would love to do this for my mom but she's not able to go.
posted by stormpooper at 9:37 AM on March 19, 2010

Can she find something she enjoys doing as a volunteer? This will expand her social network a bit and give her something positive to focus on. It's something that people don't explore very often, but living a long life often means outliving your family and friends. I know my maternal grandmother was a lonely woman when she passed away at 96- she'd simply outlived all of her peers. My other grandmother, who is still alive at 98, really got involved in a number of community groups in her 70's, and I think she's much better off for it now. It can be anything- a craft group, a church group, a library group, some local civic cause- just something that she can feel good about and make her feel part of a larger community.
posted by ambrosia at 12:04 PM on March 19, 2010

Best answer: So what can I do from this (literal and figurative) distance?

Help her to find the local community resources that deal with this. The issues your mother are facing are far from unique, and senior centers exist in part to help with this.

Unfortunately there's nothing that can really be done for the underlying problem. As my 70+ year old parents keep saying: You can make new friends, but you can't make new friends that have known you for forty years.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:46 PM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks guys. I know what she's experiencing is not unique. She's pretty active in her community (volunteers at a free clinic and an elementary school) and socially (happy hours on the dock with neighbors) but as Tell Me No Lies' parents say, they're not the people she's known for 40 years. It may be helpful for her to hear that I understand that. Thanks aimedwander for the step-by-step on navigating the less-than-warm waters between us in a way that will benefit her.
posted by headnsouth at 5:07 PM on March 19, 2010

« Older Looking for a HD camcorder.   |   Warranty hacks -- How to get them to do what we... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.