On lockdown with stonewalling elderly mother
March 19, 2020 2:20 AM   Subscribe

My two teens, myself and my mother (80) are on COVID-19 lockdown and my mother's attitude is making things unbearable. She is extremely negative and constantly chastises the children and me, or else stonewalls me and even the kids at times. Do you have advice on how I can make the situation less unpleasant for us?

My mother came from overseas to spend a few months with us, but has remained for almost a year due to her worsened arthritis, which has severely limited her walking. She makes herself useful by cooking for us and doing a little light cleaning, but views herself as our servant even though I tell her she doesn't need to do anything. She spends most of her day online, lying on her bed in her room. She claims she can take care of herself but even before the virus I wasn't ready to let her take the long flight back in her condition. She lives on a hill and doesn't drive, and there's a flight of stairs to her room. Also, there's no family to help and no friends to get groceries. We are stuck and I dread the prospect of months of her stonewalling.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is she receiving pain management help? Some of that sounds a lot like chronic pain. Also, you said you didn’t let her go back...but does she have her things? A community? Friends? All the elements of living in a place rather than existing in one? Obviously this isn’t the time to figure out anything that would have involved travel but I’d be depressed in that situation, uprooted and suffering.

I would talk to her to see what she’d like to do - get her room decorated up a bit, order a chair - and also that maybe this is a great time for her and one or both of the teens to record family memories, recipes, she could teach the teens to cook, share favourite music, do things like puzzles together if her arthritis permits, etc. In other words try to find some positive things to do that value her.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:40 AM on March 19 [11 favorites]

Do you have advice on how I can make the situation less unpleasant for us?

No. All I can offer you is advice on how to stop the unpleasantness from driving you round the twist.

Your mother has had 80 years to learn how to deal with being her. You've had much less than that, and you've now been forced into circumstances where you need to keep rubbing up against her being her, and it's hard. But being 80 years old with arthritis in a foreign country is just unpleasant and expecting everybody involved to conduct themselves graciously at all times is unrealistic.

So the thing to do is focus less on how long this shit is going to run for than on just getting though the next day, the next hour, the next minute, while taking and inflicting the minimum available degree of damage.

It's been said that if you offer somebody your head on a platter, that makes it harder for them to cut it off. There's a nugget of truth at the centre of that fatalistic joke that I have often applied internally in the service of expectation management.

At least half the suffering involved in living through periods of genuinely unavoidable unpleasantness is the relentless grinding contrast between how stuff seems likely to play out and how it would be better if it played out. So if I stop tying myself in knots trying to work out how to persuade somebody I'm unavoidably living with to alter their behaviour in ways that make my own life less miserable, and just expect that they're going to be difficult to live with for the foreseeable future, then that half pretty much goes away and I can re-devote the internal resources for dealing with that to better self-care instead.

What can't be cured must be endured, and living with an 80 year old whose arthritis (among other things, for an absolute certainty) is making her miserable is not something that can be cured. It's just hard.

Eventually it might even become hard enough that you stop trying to persuade her not to go home. There's even some chance that that's her actual game plan, if she has any tendency toward passive aggression; even if she doesn't, part of what's making her feel and act miserable right now might still be feeling stuck between doing what she actually wants and an unwillingness to give you cause to worry about her wellbeing. So as long as she's not actually demented, that's an outcome that really shouldn't be taken off the table.
posted by flabdablet at 3:29 AM on March 19 [9 favorites]

Get up when's she's asleep and nap when she's awake. Buy her a jigsaw puzzle or easy to play adventure game. Buy her a kitten or puppy.
posted by Beholder at 4:11 AM on March 19

I would treat her the way I treat my 13 year old - I put things in front of him (fruit, juice, a book he might like) and then back off. If we are watching/doing something we want him to participate in, we say we’re doing it and then do it, and let him decide to join in. In other words, give her the opportunity to say yes and the agency to say no.

Also I ignore all but the most egregious of attitudes.

Also yes to making sure her room/environment is welcoming to her and not just the guest bed with scratchy sheets or whatever.

Good luck!
posted by lyssabee at 4:32 AM on March 19 [9 favorites]

Does she have any meaningful work? Is there some way she can volunteer or keep someone company?
posted by amtho at 4:52 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]

give her the opportunity to say yes and the agency to say no

Wise words. Vice versa applies as well and is worth pondering with respect to the servant thing.
posted by flabdablet at 5:16 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]

What about coming up with a family project? Create an elaborate family tree with a lot of detail / doing genealogy research. Make a book about her childhood. Record her telling stories about various parts of her life/the changes of technology she has seen/memories of historical events.

Doing something together like that may help her mood, make her feel more a part of the family. And some of the things you all will learn will help you get to know her better and maybe why she is the way she is.

My MIL has dementia and her older memories are still there. So to keep her involved in conversations we talk about the past. My kids were amazed to learn that she grew up very poor, in a house with a dirt floor and all the other things that go with living in poverty. This is far from the grandmother they know with the pretty, spacious house full of nice things but does explain some of her "carry over" behaviors.
posted by maxg94 at 6:20 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]

She sounds depressed. She probably misses her routines and the way life was before. I kind of feel like that myself, and I'm much younger.

Also, people aren't cats, but I do find with cats that if their only interactions with you are negative and scolding, they're less likely to be friendly. I think people are actually somewhat similar, though capable of having a more conscious train of thought about their behavior. It sounds like there could be a bit of a cycle developing in that regard, where she's unpleasant, then it's hard for others to be pleasant back. Try to be kind to her and provide positive opportunities for interaction with everyone, or one-on-one if you think she'd prefer it. I like the idea above of continuing to offer her nice things and opportunities to interact. Eventually she might take you up on it.

Just don't throw it back at her if she doesn't respond positively right away or can't pull out of her depression immediately. This is a lot for everyone to handle, and she's pretty normal if she's afraid and having trouble dealing and perhaps not even possessed of the right words to talk about it. Keep reaching out.
posted by limeonaire at 6:36 AM on March 19 [4 favorites]

constantly chastises the children and me, or else stonewalls me and even the kids at times. Don't let her get away with being mean. Model love and intolerance of meanness for yourkids.
You kids are spoiled, you have to eat ThingYouHate. "No, Mom, in our house the children may choose not to eat ThingTheyHate, as long as the are eating a balanced diet. And we don't call names."
Blah, blah, hurtful talk. "Mom, would you like some Tylenol? Maybe being in pain is making you use hurtful words."

My Mom was mean, and worse when she had COPD and was absolutely pissed that she clearly wasn't going to live forever. I used to leave the room, and breathe, but I watched my sister lay a big hug on Mom and tell her "It's hard, isn't it. Sometimes it's all just so hard." I won't bore you with my family dynamics, but ramping up the love towards her is an effective technique. Bring her treats, praise her a lot, be as affectionate as possible.

Stonewalling? great. If she's quiet, maybe she's pouting, but she's not being mean, so embrace it. You're also using the technique of extinguishing - ignoring bad behavior denies them reinforcement. Reinforce her good behavior whenever it occurs. "Mom, you're so good at braiding Child's hair, would you show me?" Great NYT article about mild behavior management technique.

She is the repository of family history. Try to get her to tell the stories, make the food, etc. What was it like when she was Child's age? What was the house she grew up in like? Did she have pets?
posted by theora55 at 9:21 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]

She makes herself useful by cooking for us and doing a little light cleaning, but views herself as our servant even though I tell her she doesn't need to do anything. She spends most of her day online, lying on her bed in her room.

She wants to be useful. Let her know how she can help. It will help with what sounds like depression.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:05 PM on March 19

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