How do I help my parents from several states away?
April 25, 2011 7:23 AM   Subscribe

How do I stop having extreme anxiety when I think about the fact that I live 1,500 miles away from aging parents?

I'm the oldest daughter, at only 25, but my parents are in their mid-sixties. About two years ago my parents moved back to my mother's hometown after she retired.

I think that the loss of pride/income/social circle/purpose/etc. from her retirement has kickstarted a bout of depression in my mother that hasn't gotten any better for the last two years. I think she had fantasies during the length of my childhood of what moving back to her hometown would be like, and I believe that the reality is much much much less appealing. Her siblings are all getting old and having their own problems; my grandmother is no longer alive. Both of her daughters do not live at home anymore-- she is sad all the time.

I live in a city I love. I feel like I might set my roots down here, but I also feel true anguish when I think about what this means for my parents. My mother constantly makes "jokes" about when I will be moving home. I fear about her health and what might happen in the next 5 years. I have NO DESIRE to live in their part of the country, but it feels like I have little choice in the matter.
Why bother starting a life 1,500 miles away from where I'm going to end up anyhow?

Besides likely future health problems, she is so sad all the time now. And I feel like crying whenever I picture her shut up in her house with my dad, all alone. My dad is fine, in great health, and keeping busy. I know he is trying to help my mother, but it feels like the depression is winning and I am losing *my* mom.

Dad, while full of love, is not a very vocal guy and usually demonstrates his care through action. My mom can no longer handle this and says that she's old and sad and unhappy that her daughter seems to have taken after her father's "inability to show love." The gist being that, akin to a parental version of romantic love, I simply don't meet her needs (through either apathy or inability) and that she is "sad for me" and the future I'm bound to receive because of it.

I know she's in pain and that the mom I knew growing up would never say these hurtful things to me. But I don't know what to do now from so far away. As the oldest, I don't feel like I can expect my little sister to be the one responsible for them, and ask her to live in near them for me.

What do I do? I've started calling twice a week; we do online videochats. But I still feel like I'm suffocating sometimes with how panicked I feel about my and their futures.

Do I have to move?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Do you think she'd be happier if the "shut up in the house" thing was lessened? Is there a way to encourage her to get involved with something and meet people? My retired mom found that no longer having the daily semi-social interactions at work to be a real gap, and she started feeling pretty down/bored (she didn't use the word depressed, but that's how i perceived it.) She joined a choir, and the weekly practices and post-practice coffee dates have given her a set of new friends and a bit of a routine. (She also joined the YMCA, and the same thing happened - she met a few other retirees who were also walking on the treadmill at 11a.m., and now they have post workout lunch dates.)

My mother isn't serious or particularly skilled at either singing or exercising, but having a routine and regular social opportunities has done WONDERS for her retirement happiness.

Maybe you can buy her a gym membership, a registration for an art class, or something else like that as a birthday gift? Give her a little push?
posted by Kololo at 7:45 AM on April 25, 2011

You don't have to move. I know how much it hurts to be away from the people you love, especially when they're not well, but your mom is struggling with clinical depression right now. Although moving home may make you feel less guilty, it won't actually make her any less depressed. What she needs is therapy, and I'd suggest you talk to your father and sister about all strongly encouraging her to get the help she needs. It may not be easy to convince her, but it's pretty much all that any of you can do for her at this point.

In the long term, hopefully she'll be well. If your parents can afford it, they may eventually think of moving closer to you if where they're living isn't working out for them, but it sounds like it's not really the town's fault, but rather that of chemistry in your poor mom's brain.

Sending you hugs and good vibes....
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:47 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

No, god no do not move. Why can't *they* move? Her hometown apparently has nothing for her. She's turned her inability, or at leas refusal, to engage herself around into somehow being a failure of your father, and you, to make her happy.

She makes jokes about you coming "home" her childhood home, not yours. That's effin' ridiculous.

Everyone is, in the end, responsible for their own happiness. Take care of yourself, and tell your mother to do the same for herself.
posted by notsnot at 7:47 AM on April 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

You do not have to move. Moving home will not fix your mother. Furthermore, you are not responsible for fixing her. If you move home, youir mom will still be depressed, if she is, in fact, depressed. It is important that she is empowered to create and maintain her own happiness.

Obviously strangers on the internet cannot know your family situation, but it may pay to be up front with your mom about your fears. Tell her that you are very concerned that she seems to be in a sad place, and that you want her to be able to be happy. Maybe suggest some therapists in her home town, or some resources she can use herself if she's that kind of person. Ask has hundreds of threads with great recs about self-help CBT and so forth.

She also probably has things she enjoys - reading, a television show, something - that perhaps there is a local group around, and you can help her find those things. But in the end, you cannot be responsible for her happiness. That is not what having kids is for.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:49 AM on April 25, 2011

Do I have to move?

Different cultures will tell you otherwise, You don't. Your mother may make you feel like you should or have to, and other people might as well, but this one person on the internet is telling you no. You do not have to move.

What you do have to do is reconcile that you cannot change someone. You can encourage your mom to go to therapy, you can encourage your dad to encourage her to do so, but if she doesn't, she's likely to stay sad and she'll keep saying things that make you feel bad.

It sounds, from your description, like you're from an ethnic culture where the eldest child takes care of the parents, no matter what, no matter where. I understand that but I also understand that you're feeling trapped and you need some help. Enlist your sister! Tell her what you've told us and hopefully she'll also step up to the plate and encourage your mom to go to therapy*.

You are your own person, you are not a reflection of your parents. Loving them does not mean forsaking your own life. I hope you feel better soon.

*I keep suggesting therapy because that's what your mom needs.
posted by cooker girl at 7:50 AM on April 25, 2011

it feels like the depression is winning and I am losing *my* mom.

This is probably one of the hardest things about aging parents - the fact that they get more vulnerable as they age, perhaps suffer ill health, or struggle with some of the other challenges that this phase of life brings with it. Such as retirement, children moving away and living their own life or disappointment when long held 'dreams' don't live up to unrealistic expectations when they are realised. And it is a part of growing up for children, too, to realise that parents don't always get it right, don't always make wise choices and don't always do what's best for them, such as seek medical help for depression for example.

The trouble is that there is very little you can do about that. You can be supportive, irrespective of where you live. You can be reasearching local support options for example and provide this information to your parents. But there is no way that you moving would make your mother less depressed.

Ask yourself what would actually happen if you lived near them? You may see them more often but in terms of actualy contact time would it really be more? Would you really be able to get your mother to seek treatment for her depression if you were there in person? Not unless she's prepared to seek help and if she is prepared to seek help it won't matter if you live near them.

So you have to separate what of this is you being scared about your parents aging in general, what of this is due to your mother's depression and the way this impacts her interaction with you and how much of this is you, needing to work out how you want to live your life.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:51 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you are seriously considering putting down roots where you are, is there any possibility they can move closer to you, instead of vice versa? Or closer to your brother? In some ways, its incumbent on them to think about the future, too, and if they are going to need care and companionship from their kids, the could be the ones to move.

Otherwise, I'm a a loss for how to lessen your own anxiety over this. I understand it, because I felt the same way, but we moved closer to my parents (but also closer to a lot of other things - we didn't just move for them). I think if we hadn't, we would have had to start a budget just for emergency travel for visits to handle crisis, plus regular vacations (which always ended up being trips to see family when we didn't live near family).

Hang in there.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:56 AM on April 25, 2011

This is precisely what retirement communities are for. (Important distinction: NOT a nursing home! It's more like college for seniors.)

Lonely old people + lonely old people = No longer lonely old people.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:12 AM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you move, what's to say that your mother won't start feeling guilty that she "made you move just for her"? YOU'LL be depressed because you're living in a place you don't want to live, and SHE'LL still be depressed because she knows YOU'RE depressed, and so now BOTH of you will be depressed and you've solved nothing.

I'm in a similar location-wise situation -- my parents fortunately are hale and hearty and active, and 3 state lines away from me. I am definitely staying put where I live. My brother lives a half-hour away from them, however, and is also staying put where HE lives; so in 20 years, when the folks are getting old, I plan on suggesting that if I can stay where I am, and have him take care of day-to-day things, I'll just come for extended visits a couple times a year so he can have a break, and we share the burden that way.

Does your sister live nearby? Can she help out some, and you can just visit a few times a year for a little while? That may be a workable solution.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:43 AM on April 25, 2011

These days, mid-60s is not old. It's the depression that is making her seem old. As wise posters have said, she needs help with that pronto. Is she on medication? It might be a good (and possibly temporary) patch.
Pow wow with your sister/s to research and get her into a therapy scenario -- lots of senior counseling out there these days and I'd try and make it group. She needs the support of folks in similiar situations (and by the way, many of them really truly alone, which may help in the count-your-blessings department).
Do not move.
Schedule 2 or 3 trips a year if you can, now, and let her know about them so she has something to look forward to.
Have a serious talk with your father about practical ways he can help your mom feel better
-- don't rehash the old "you have to show affection" thing, that won't help. On the other hand, he can't be just "doing fine" while she fades away.
Unfortunately, I'm with the folks above who think she's the one who should be doing the moving away from her childhood home.
Live your own life.
posted by thinkpiece at 9:45 AM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have/can you set up a throwaway email address and let the mods know what it is to post in-thread? I feel for you and would like to offer advice and hope, but for a few reasons of my own, would prefer to do it over email.
posted by penguin pie at 9:49 AM on April 25, 2011

If you really think you will stay in your new home, encourage your parents to move to be close to you. Or perhaps you can all move in a mutually agreeable location to be close to each other. Speaking as someone whose mom did in many ways fade away I would strongly advocate taking a very active approach to this - yes, your worse fears can come true and you can make a difference - so do it.
posted by zia at 9:54 AM on April 25, 2011

Different people will give you different opinions.

I for one would either move or plan on moving eventually. I am in a similar situation (same age, left parent's country to marry), and I have a terrible time thinking of mom being alone at home. It works when we plan visits to each other and plan for her to stay with me for extended periods of time, but in my case I do plan to go back someday, and will probably leave after my parents are gone for good. I could never forgive myself if my parents died alone or felt abandoned. But that really is just me.

I say you need introspection. Perhaps you must make a decision between two very valuable aspects of your life: your comfort, and helping a parent in need of support. Perhaps there are other options. What you need to do is sit down and analyse what choice will give you the least regrets. In order to do this you must also be objective and realistic about your role in different scenarios. My mom is not suffering from depression. She simply misses me and has no life due to having been a stay at home mom that was completely devoted to the happiness of her children. Your mom is depressed. Would your moving to her place really help? Maybe you could help with payments to see a therapist instead? Motivate her to get involved in extra activities? Maybe even having periodical visits to look forward to will help her? Only you have these answers. Give yourself some time, and try to analyse how you really feel and what you really think the problem is. After defining the issue, move onto defining your own priorities, and then come up with different options. Based on what you now know (what you want and what you need) choose what seems to be the best for you. Nobody here can give you the answer as to what you should do. We all have different MOM units, with different specs.

I wish you the best!

Also, about the regret thing: what you do, even if you do it with loving intentions, may result in bad, bad things. If whatever decision you make results poorly, you have to focus on the fact that you meant well. I think it is safe to say there will almost always be some regret, since any choice we make is by definition one "choice not to" or more.
posted by Tarumba at 10:28 AM on April 25, 2011

You moving home right now will not make your mom less depressed. It'll just make you depressed. If you must move to where she lives, don't do it until you absolutely have to be on the premises to nursemaid 24-7.

Which of you technically lives the closest to her? Is it you or your sister? I suspect you're right and that you will end up having to be The Responsible One (especially if your sister lives even farther away/is still in school or something), but if your sister is genuinely closer by, it might end up on her from sheer vicinity. Never underestimate the power of "who lives closest" for determining these things, even at far distances.

I think under the circumstances, you shouldn't move to her, though. If she hates the place, is there any way they could move? Is there anything that is permanently keeping them there to prevent a move? If one of your parents was incapacitated, could you move them to you? Have you talked to your dad about this? It seems to me that he has the most leverage right now compared to you or anyone else, not to mention vantage point. And you'll need his help one way or another. But I think that moving them to you might be a far more reasonable option. If one of them does get more incapacitated, you may have more leverage to force a move anyway.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:28 AM on April 25, 2011

On a different note, I would suggest talking to an eldercare coach, who can help you sort out the issues and your options. I've personally consulted with Janice Wallace (for a different type of issue than yours) and found it very useful; I recommend her services.
posted by jeri at 11:32 AM on April 25, 2011

Whether you should plan to move closer to your parents, or not, I cannot say. What I can say is, that if your parents are now early-sixties Americans, and live to the median age of death for people born in the 1940s, you've only got a few years to worry about the issue, as the median life expectancy for them is 62.9 years (65.2 for your Mom, 60.8 for your Dad). Statistically, depending on the year of their births, they may even now be on "borrowed time." The numbers might vary a bit based on race, actual birth year, family genetics, and long term health issues (smoking history, occupation, etc.), but odds are, you've got your parents for maybe another 5 to 8 years, if they've enjoyed good health, had good health care and preventive medicine, are non-smokers, etc. Of course, depression and related quality of life conditions you describe are debilitating in the long term, in their own right.

You will, however, have the rest of your life to remember and reflect upon what, if anything, special you did for them in these remaining years. And if you think today's anxiety about their welfare is difficult to handle, I can't warn you enough about decades of regret once they are gone.
posted by paulsc at 11:37 AM on April 25, 2011

I know a lot of adults who are older than your parents and are still peppy and healthy and mobile and so on. Do NOT start thinking that early-60s is "old" and it's inevitable they'll fade away soon. It's just not true. It makes sense to be thinking about the next 10 years, for example thinking about what their savings are like, whether their house is accessible if they are having mobility problems, etc.

But the real thing to be thinking about is what their social and psychological worlds are like. I agree that it sounds like your mom could use therapy, in addition to the obvious: think about encouraging her to start building a network of friends in her town. Volunteer at the library, the local community garden, take a dance class, take up knitting and go to the knitting store that has classes, etc. Do they belong to a church that has events and has social groups?

She's bored and lonely, so what's the obvious solution? Exactly the same things that you need to do as a young person in a new city -- find things that are enjoyable to do, where she is making a contribution, and where she can meet people! You can't do those things for her, any more than she can do them for you.

Maybe you could make it a pact with her, each of you will pick one activity or event to go to per week, and you can compare notes when you come home. Maybe you could both take up yoga, or something of the sort. She needs positive new beginnings to be thinking about.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:48 AM on April 25, 2011

And the other thing about being far from aging parents, if they are truly aging and might have crises, is to build a relationship with their neighbors or a family friend who lives in their city, so there is someone who's in town in case of emergency.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:58 AM on April 25, 2011

I've got a similar problem but worse(just trust me on that). Try and see if you can get your mom out of the house and involved in something on a regular basis. Church, volunteering, the red hat society are all places to start. send her cards or notes through the mail letting her know you care.
posted by bananafish at 12:18 PM on April 25, 2011

paulsc's numbers are skewed -- that's the life expectancy at birth, not at mid-sixties. This actuarial table from the Washington State government suggests they'll both likely live for decades. I don't think you should let anyone in this thread try to guilt you into doing anything.
posted by gerryblog at 12:19 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, good heavens. Mid sixties is NOT old whatsoever. She is young enough to find purpose in some outward activity-and you moving home will NOT fix what ails her.

First thing is she needs a full workup medical checkup. Second thing is for her to find some sort of volunteer and or paid work to give her some purpose. If she is churchy at all she needs to find a congregation and plug in that way.

She is an adult and she is responsible to do those things for herself. Besides, I am a mom of grown kids myself. I miss my son who is halfway across the country but I would never ever dream of trying to guilt him into moving back home.

My mom can no longer handle this and says that she's old and sad and unhappy that her daughter seems to have taken after her father's "inability to show love." The gist being that, akin to a parental version of romantic love, I simply don't meet her needs (through either apathy or inability) and that she is "sad for me" and the future I'm bound to receive because of it.

THAT is manipulative bull hockey and you need to NOT reward it. It is not your responsibility to "meet her needs" in this way. You have a healthy father who needs to see to it that she get her butt in to the doc and have a checkup, and counselling if she is found to be in need of it.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:06 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

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