I love my wife AND my parents...so...HELP!
July 17, 2013 8:42 AM   Subscribe

My parents are both getting older and it seems likely that their health will continue to deteriorate over the next few years. This means that I (and my lovely wife) are being called upon more and more frequently to help. So....the good news (depending on your point of view) is that we have successfully convinced them that they really need to 1. move to a one-level home that is more suitable to their lifestyle AND 2. move closer to us so that we can help more. Special snowflake details after the jump...

The bad news (depending on your point of view) is that they have just purchased a home across the street from us. It's a PERFECT house, and we are both VERY happy that they have made this choice...but I am certain that we will need help with setting boundaries. My Dad is GREAT, but my Mom is passive aggressive, bi-polar, and just plain difficult. Really. I cannot overstate this. My wife and I agree that this move is for the best, but we would very much welcome any advice on how to best manage this exciting new phase of both our and our parents' lives.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. Tough situation.

How receptive would your parents be to a frank, honest discussion about this? Can you talk to them directly about your expectations, how much privacy and independant life you expect to maintain, what are and are not reasonable demands upon you, etc.? Who knows, they may have the same concerns you're having. It is my opinion that these things are best addressed head on, honestly, and openly. You don't want to get in to a situation where you feel they are constantly intruding upon you and your wife, and you don't want to have your life so intertwined with your parents' that you and your wife no longer feel free to live your own lives. You don't want this to have a negative affect on your relationship with your wife OR your parents. You want this to be a positive for both. You just need to lay the groundwork NOW to ensure that it does work out well to everyone's benefit.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:51 AM on July 17, 2013

Oh Hai, my sister has this exact problem. She's not across the street, but she's a lot closer than I choose to be.

I think setting expectations up front is best, otherwise you'll have a "Everybody Loves Raymond" scenario.

Have them over for dinner after the move and sit at the dining room table to draft out, on paper what each set of folks expects.

For example:

1. Call to ask if it's okay to come over.

2. Don't just assume that because I'm home, that I'm not doing anything.

3. Every Thursday we all go for Chinese Food.

Make this a living document. And let them tell you what they expect from you! (Don't assume that they want to be all up in your bidness.)

Agree from the get go that you'll all be honest with each other and no hard feelings!

Your mom may pout (as my mom does) but you can cajole her and say, "I'm sorry you're not happy with that decision, but that's how it is. So, have you heard from Aunt Susan lately?"

As your parents age, it's a lot easier to be closer. I find that when I DO visit, my Mom especially expects me to be in her back pocket the entire time. I think it would be less exhausting if I could do it in 2 hour increments.

Hang in there!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:51 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do your parents have any other family besides you that they are in contact with? How about long-time friends? No matter how much you love your parents, you shouldn't have to take on the entire task of caring for them and being their social outlet. "It takes a village" for older folks as well as children.

So assuming your parents have other friends and family, enlist them for help and companionship. Even if they don't live nearby they can write, call or Skype.

US-centric advice to follow:

Are your parents religious? There's a reason people refer to their "church family." If they can join a religious congregation when they settle in that can be a huge help in providing companionship and a social outlet. If your parents are atheists or just not conventionally religious, the Unitarian Universalists welcome nonbelievers, skeptics, pagans and others who don't have a church to go to.

Most towns and cities of any size have a senior center which provides recreational activities from bingo to wine-tasting, as well as meals and a place to socialize. If you can get your parents signed up with a senior center that will be a HUGE help. Many of these centers provide transportation for those who don't drive.

On preview, others have offered excellent advice about etiquette and boundaries. My advice is more to get your folks to have a social life and something to do that isn't just "hang out with Anon and his wife." You can't be the center of their world - it won't be healthy for them or for you.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:54 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

The time to set boundaries was when they were in the housing market and you were supposed to guide your parents to a house that was not across the street.

Alternately, you could move to another house in the same town that was not across the street from your parents. Actually, that is probably the best solution. You can't choose who your mother is. At this point, it is too late to change where your parents live. You CAN change where you live.
posted by deanc at 8:59 AM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

The time to set boundaries was when they were in the housing market and you were supposed to guide your parents to a house that was not across the street.

In some cultures, like the one I grew up in, having your aging parents nearby brings peace of mind and happiness! I think the OP is expressing that, but is looking to set boundaries.
Absolutely time for some honest conversation, maybe with your dad? And looking into senior programs and handing them the brochures, highlighted? If they make friends, they'll be busy!

Good luck, I think it's wonderful.
posted by thinkpiece at 9:12 AM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

It might help to have the setting boundaries conversation as something where both houses set out rules for their own house. So, what are their expectations for when you can come over, and what times are they available to receive visitors, and should you call first?

If you ask them first, and get their rules down, then it will be easier when they hear your rules.
posted by Joh at 9:17 AM on July 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

You can't be the center of their world - it won't be healthy for them or for you.

This. Boundaries are important, but so is community. In fact, I'd venture to say that you'll have a hard time enforcing boundaries if you don't make sure that the community/social stuff is taken care of.

The suggestion of a religious congregation is great, because that can have multiple functions (source of social activities, place to get help/support, volunteer opportunities), but even if they're not religious or don't find a congregation that is especially active, I think there are other options:

Volunteering: do either or both of them have skills they can put to use to help others? When he was slightly younger and more active in his 60s and 70s, my grandpa enjoyed tutoring kids in reading and doing "meals on wheels" deliveries (he'd deliver meals and then sit and socialize with the person while they ate). It got him out of the house, gave him opportunities to socialize, and felt like a worthwhile use of his time. If there's a cause that they care about, or a skill set they feel confident about, it'd be nice to connect them with a volunteering gig to help them feel plugged into their community.

Socializing: are there groups, classes, or venues near you that might be a good fit for either or both of your parents? I'm thinking of fitness classes at the YMCA, book clubs, knitting groups, etc. These sorts of things will help them form their own social niche in the community, so that you're not their whole social circle.

Support: are there resources in your area that can offer support to older adults? I'm thinking of something informal, like a neighbor kid who can help out around the house/yard, or formal, like an organization that provides rides/activities/etc. for older adults. Obviously, you're going to be doing a lot to help them out, and they're going to rely on you, but it would be a good idea to have some other source of support they trust.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:26 AM on July 17, 2013

I emphatically echo the ideas above to help them find community, and to make sure you find out and honor their boundaries as well.

I would add that maybe you could outsource some of the physical caretaking, to whatever extent is financially feasible for either household. Maybe rather than helping them clean, you help them find a cleaning service, or a handyman when they need something more complicated than changing a lightbulb, or a grocery delivery service rather than driving them to the store all the time. Or maybe just pick the one or two things that you absolutely don't want to do (for me, taking someone grocery shopping would be misery), and start brainstorming alternatives. It might help keep resentment at those one or two things from clouding everything.
posted by jaguar at 9:41 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Leave a note pad at the door. That way if they walk over to your house (and you aren't there or don't answer) they leave a note and feel like they contacted you.

And if at some point they ask where you are going always OVER estimate the time. Not "running to the store" but "I have a bunch of errands". My dad would be calling me a dozen times "worried sick" because I spent an hour at the supermarket.
posted by beccaj at 9:47 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Key exchanging comes to mind as a possible boundary-tester. If you give your parents keys to your house in case of emergencies, be prepared to have your mom show up and just let herself in based on the description you've given us of her. It may behoove you to try and finagle things so that you and your wife get access to their house for emergencies, but not the reverse, unless you can persuade your father to never ever give the key to your house to your mom. I would also probably not rely on them for babysitting unless it's really the only option, because that may set up some kind of quidproquo mentality that ends up being a huge PITA later on.

I also really like the idea of setting one day a week where you for sure see one another as a big family, along with everything else Ruthless Bunny said.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:53 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Advice from someone who's been there: get Mom straightened out before your father passes away. Unless your father is significantly younger than your mother, the odds are good that your passive-aggressive, bipolar mother will outlive him. Get her as many friends as you can, as soon as possible, and focus on getting her involved in the community, and on building life skills for her that she can utilize when your father passes away. (My grandmother hadn't signed a check or put gas in her car for over 50 years when her husband passed away, which made daily life after his passing even more difficult than it otherwise would have been.)

Also, if you have any siblings who despise you, I would work on developing healthy relationships with the siblings as a family. Sometimes one parent can enable the poor behavior of one child toward another, and the other -usually the father- simply looks the other way because that's the easiest thing to do, even if their input would change the other partner's behavior toward that child.
posted by Unangenehm at 11:00 AM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think of it the way I'd handle my toddler: routine, routine, routine. soneone upthread said you could have a set in stone visiting time, and I think that that, supplemented by A Frank Talk, would do the trick as well as could be expected.
posted by jpe at 11:18 AM on July 17, 2013

The only piece of advice I can give. Not dinner together every week. Every other week, or the third week of the month. That's because there will still be time for interaction the rest of the time, and sometimes you really can't pull yourself together to get dinner together.
posted by anitanita at 11:38 AM on July 17, 2013

Don't give your parents the key to your house. Don't establish that it is OK for them to just walk in, so keep your front door locked and your garage door down at least until you have them "trained" to not just walk in. In return do the same thing when you visit them, ring the doorbell and wait. Do not get into the habit of telling your parents where you are going and when they can expect you back so they won't monitor your comings and goings so much. Don't include your parents in all your plans just because they are so close and it's just as easy to take them with you every time you go out for dinner. If they have the money keep them as financially independent as you can do, so if you do go out together they pay for themselves that sort of thing.

Do not discuss private things in front of them, keep some subjects just between your wife and yourself. Remember to make time for your wife, just you and her, it's great that she's supportive of your family moving closer, and she probably loves them too, but they are not her family and will need more breaks from them than you. Don't expect her to do all the running around, taking them shopping or to hospitals etc jobs just because those are the jobs that women in the family usually do, make sure you pick up your end of the workload. That will help head of any resentment that might build up.
posted by wwax at 12:09 PM on July 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

If you have kids or are considering having them, do not allow this move to happen. If the wheels are already in motion, dear god shield them from grandma as best as possible. Help grandma get her shit together if you are at all able.

I grew up two houses away from my passive aggressive, bi-polar, just plain difficult grandma, and there is not enough therapy in the world to undo the emotional damage inflicted by her every day behavior.

My absolutely lovely, sweet, awesome grandpa passed away when I was still very young. There's a high chance you won't be able to rely on your father as a buffer.

My parents did the best they could to provide a normal, safe environment for me at home by doing a few things: not forcing me to interact with her, standing up for me if she crossed a line, being careful to never make excuses for her behavior, and reinforcing that I was not the cause of her acting out.

If you don't have kids and aren't planning on it, I think my advice in the above paragraph still applies to you and your wife. Be careful in all of this that you make sure your wife knows that you are on her team. Be especially aware of your mother's interactions with your wife; namely - day to day interaction with your mom will increase - don't let her bizarre behavior become normal because of that. Stay vigilant about enforcing boundaries.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 1:26 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

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