MIL is sick and won't let FIL leave her side
September 20, 2016 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for suggestions on how to help. My husband's family seems to be stuck in a pattern. His parents are older and his mother's anxiety is so bad that she can't be left alone for a minute.

Husband's parents live a couple hours away. Father is in good physical health and wants to stay active in the community. Mother suffers from extreme anxiety. She hasn't allowed him to leave the house without her for several years. He is not allowed to leave her alone at all. Not even for a trip to the grocery store. She will not be left alone in the car if he has to go to the bank, even for 5 minutes. He wants to travel and cannot go anywhere because she will not travel other than in a car, locally. She does not drive. He is her sole caretaker.

There have been a few times where my husband will go stay with her for the day if his dad has to do something. He says it is miserable. She cries and worries. My husband is not available to stay with them very frequently.

They have no other family nearby. They won't talk about hiring someone to come in and help.

I feel bad because I love them both and I see that her illness is tearing both of them apart. She is basically holding my FIL hostage with her anxiety. It seems like his mental health is deteriorating recently. He is extremely on edge and bitter about his situation.

My husband gets very defensive when I try to talk to him about it. The whole situation is upsetting to me because no one is helping anyone by enabling her behavior. They need to hire someone to help them. I feel like I'm not allowed to bring up this subject. Should I butt out?

I personally come from a background where my family was abusive and I had to cut ties. His parents were always supportive of him and he thinks I don't understand how a family can want to take care of each other because I never had that. But the way I see it is that this situation is untenable and that they need more help. Is he right? Do I not know what I'm talking about because my family was terrible? I don't know anymore. He feels that their current situation with his mom is working just fine and they hope she will get better one day.

She will not get better. They need help. I'm not being cruel by wanting to talk with my husband about how to deal with things now and in the future, but I feel like my husband thinks I'm being cruel if I bring it up. What if something happens to my FIL? How do we prepare? Maybe I'm not talking about it in the best way and causing my husband to get defensive? I want to help somehow. I love him and his parents even though I disagree with the way this is handled.

Sorry, this is long. So many questions. Thanks for reading.
posted by crunchy_cereals to Human Relations (14 answers total)
I'm so sorry to hear about this. Has your husband told you why he doesn't want to hire help?

In Japan, where I'm from, there are a lot of families who feel it is "uncaring" to hire help, even though the population is aging.

Fortunately, my parents decided long ago that they would rather have professional help after seeing how well the hired caretaker handled things with my grandparents.
posted by xmts at 7:00 PM on September 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm sure it's hard to witness this, but you can't force anyone to make better decisions. Your FIL is going to have to reach his own tipping point before anything changes. Or, those might come about once someone's health is more evidently affected (and systems have to get involved).

How do we prepare?

The main thing that will make a difference at that tipping point is money (for help). I don't know if that conversation's any less fraught, but if there's any room for discussion there at all, would talk to husband about (him) talking to his parents about financial planning. Maybe you two could put some of your own away, for that purpose - if it's needed, it's there, if not, you have "extra".

In the meantime, if you're able and positioned to, listen. Wait for a moment when your FIL or husband either express a need for help on their own, or are open to hearing ideas, and support them then. It's got to come from them.

This is hard, I'm sorry.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:01 PM on September 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

That is hard, watching other people make choices that seem to sort of stick them in places where they aren't happy. Especially since you'd like to be supportive of your FiL but especially your husband. But I would maybe work on your framing so that you can find space to just sort of live with this situation and not feel quite so much that it needs fixing. I agree, it's frustrating and terrible and I would have a hard time too, but assuming people are grown adults, they are making choices. So, not to be an internet person nitpickier but just to work through it.

- "She hasn't allowed him to leave the house without her for several years." - this is a choice he is making
- "He wants to travel and cannot go anywhere because she will not travel other than in a car, locally." - this is a choice he is making
- "They won't talk about hiring someone to come in and help." - this is a choice they are making

I feel like I'm not allowed to bring up this subject. Should I butt out?

It's possible that your husband is likewise very frustrated and feels stuck with his role in the whole mess. I know I would be. I think as a team/family, you need to think about how much YOU enable the situation by assisting them with it and talk about boundaries. And again, I know this sounds cold-hearted and really what needs to happen is that your MiL needs mental health treatment of some sort. But at some level your husband does not need to enable this if he chooses not to. And he may feel like he doesn't have choices in which case it's a good chance for a conversation about the things we can change and the things we can't change.

And so think about what you want, that you might be able to get. Husband not to feel like he has to go over there? Husband to not bitch to you about his dad's issues? Not to talk in weird fantasy terms about how this will just go away if people wish it? To not be stuck with your MiL's untreated mental illness if something happens to your FiL? See if you can start by having some conversations with your husband just about the two of you. Don't try to fix his family but you also don't have to tolerate their "just so" stories about the way the world is. Start with better boundaries yourself about not just going along with their "that's just the way it is!" reporting of things.

I am sorry, this is challenging. i have some family members in similar situations and the boundaries stuff, especially around people who are hurting, can be really tough.
posted by jessamyn at 7:03 PM on September 20, 2016 [9 favorites]

Has your MIL always been this anxious, or has it ramped up recently? Especially if it's gotten much more severe in the past few months, or past year, the first stop should be her doctor for a checkup. There might be something physical (dementia? diabetes? fear of falling?) contributing to her anxiety.

Sometimes, aging parents will listen to a professional (like a doctor) when they won't listen to their adult children. Can you get your MIL's doctor, or an elder care social worker, in to help?
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:03 PM on September 20, 2016 [15 favorites]

Hiring someone to sit with your MIL and do light housework while your FIL is out doing things will not help her anxiety, and hiring help to do outside errands while your FIL continues to be trapped by his wife's anxiety will also not help.

What happens if you tell your husband that you are worried about how his mom's anxiety affects both her health and his dad's? There is only so much you can actually do, really, but I'd bet a ton of money that your husband is terrified of this situation - what it means for them, and him, and the two of you, and how to begging coping with it - and that's coming out as defensiveness. Anxiety is treatable, and neither your MIL, FIL, husband, nor you should have to live like this. Good luck.
posted by rtha at 7:09 PM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Rosie M. Banks makes a great point. Your inlaws' doctors are best placed to help. (But only if your inlaws are honest. I think they probably might not be amenable to directly talking about the impact of MIL's anxiety straight off - and it might not be anxiety, as RMB points out - but they might go in for physical pains they feel are distressing. If that relationship is comfortable, the drs might be able to steer conversations towards the concerns you're describing. If not in one visit, maybe in six or ten. So if MIL's digestion bothers her, focus on digestion - just so she's in there, talking and building trust.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:19 PM on September 20, 2016

This really sounds like a physical problem. She must have a comprehensive physical and testing and possibly consider medications.
posted by fshgrl at 7:21 PM on September 20, 2016

Thanks so much already for the thoughtful responses. To add some more information, she sees doctors regularly for any physical symptoms and sees a therapist with FIL sometimes. She will take prescriptions for a few days and then stop.
posted by crunchy_cereals at 7:25 PM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

A couple places may offer some relief - building relationships in their faith community if they have one, and/or consulting with the local office on aging and having a few trips out to the local senior center or library to be among others.

My sense is your dad may be feeling his own health slipping and is feeling trapped.

For meds, those days-of the week pill boxes might help them manage her taking them if it's a process rather than a one-by-one. If it's side effects, well, that's something else.
posted by childofTethys at 8:06 PM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

My grandmother started on anti-anxiety drugs in her 80s, became a much more positive conversationalist, and largely healed one particular difficult relationship. I'm not sure how to get from here to there, but that's one possible outcome.

Supporting a partner regarding his relationship with his parents is really hard. I'd make it your first priority to be a supportive sounding board for him. You've already put in some advice, it sounds like. Sometimes people absorb your advice when you step back and stop giving it, I've found. Sometimes they solve the problem another way. The only relationship you can deeply shape is your relationship with him. If you support him, he'll be in a better head space to help them.
posted by salvia at 8:07 PM on September 20, 2016 [6 favorites]

I hate to beat this drum again, but does she take any vitamins? Because all sorts of deficiencies cause anxiety or depression. The good news is she isn't taking any medications, so you can rule out interactions between meds and any deficiencies that are overlooked side effects from prescription meds.

Uh, maybe a UTI? Apparently there is a correlation between UTI's and severe behavioral changes.

You're right. She won't get better without some new thinking and intervention. Of course your MIL should not be allowed to suffer! Her quality of life is terrible and your husband and her husband are accepting this as the new normal.

Yes you should research and get involved. Poor woman. Please at least try.
posted by jbenben at 10:24 PM on September 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

You should respect their wishes when they say they don't need (your) help, and stay away from that situation.

And try to not let it affect you so much, especially if your own husband doesn't want you to bring it up.
posted by Kwadeng at 10:25 PM on September 20, 2016

I don't have difficult older parents, but I recently read Coping With Your Difficult Older Parent and the situation you describe is mentioned almost exactly.

I do have to reiterate jessamyn's comment above about how all of these decisions your father in law is making are choices that he himself is responsible for. This sounds like a tough situation.
posted by amicamentis at 11:40 AM on September 21, 2016

Let it go. I know it's heartbreaking to see loved ones suffer, especially when you think you have a solution. But they don't want your solution. They are adults and have the right to make their decisions - and they do so, every single day. Their lives, their choice.
posted by Neekee at 4:52 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

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