We are in our late 40s, have jobs we enjoy, a daughter in her second term at university and a 14-year-old son at home. My widowed mother came to us for Christmas and shows no signs of going. I do not know what to do because she is my mother and did a lot for me. She has always been difficult but now she complains about her age and ailments all the time. My son is finding it hard to have to see her all the time and now the Easter holiday is here.
If we are lucky, we will experience life from the vantage points of several generational positions. Each period of life brings its own particular pleasures and difficulties and, despite occasional yearnings for past moments, many people are satisfied with their actual current age if they are not in pain or dire circumstances. However, there is a limit to our chronological development. The fact that death marks the end of life adds a different dimension to relationships after the mid-life point.
Mrs T and her husband have just said goodbye to one adult child. They are no longer young parents with small children. They have the prospect of a new space opening up but also a loss to face. Was it Mrs T who invited her mother to fill the empty space in the nest or indeed the whole family? Not everyone wants a new space. Indeed, for some it is experienced as being too close for comfort. John J., for example, began to foster children when his own children left home whilst some couples have a late baby at this point. Mr and Mrs T need to consider whether their inability to set a time limit is because, despite the difficulties, they want grandmother to stay.
Conversely, some elderly relatives can be actively and rivalrously demanding of the newly won space of their children. In those circumstances the middle generation can feel needed by young and old just when they were enjoying their stage of life.
Having a parent become dependent reactivates past memories. Mrs T remembers her own dependency as a child and how her mother looked after her. However, to be the good child she feels she should be could mean neglecting her dependent child. In this situation the real child in the family can sometimes be expected to be the adult whilst the grandparent takes on the role of new baby and the parent becomes a good child. If however Mr and Mrs T manage to decide their real wishes then they will be able to discuss this with their son and daughter (who presumably will come back for visits) and balance the needs of all family members.
What about grandmother? When was she widowed? How much is she concentrating on her ailments and her age because of losses she has not been able to reflect on? Against that, we have the sharp comments from Cicero over 2000 years ago in his excellent essay on “Old Age”. He says that when old people complain about their age or their frailty “the trouble is due to character, not age.” He adds that if somebody is difficult then every period of their life will seem tiresome. Just as parents deny disturbance in their young in the hope “They will grow out of it”, so too disturbance in the old can be denied by allowing them to grow into it! “They’re only old-you have to expect it at his age”. This denies the fact that some elderly people enhance the lives of those they have contact with and some don’t. Old age does not suddenly confer either wisdom or disturbance.
Nevertheless, bereavement takes its toll. In 1976 Lily Pincus, a founder of the Tavistock Institute of Marital Studies was 75 and a widow of ten years standing when she wrote her moving book “Death and the Family. The Importance of Mourning”. She describes how she had to fracture her foot before she could fully experience her grief over the death of her husband and she highlights the way unresolved mourning clouds later relationships. Grandmother might appreciate help with this issue. What about Mrs T’s relationship with her dead father? Are there issues there that impede her ability to come to a decision? Mrs T’s mother is one individual. The fact that she wishes to stay is her own preference and she is entitled to it. However, the fact that is allowed to stay is because the rest of the family are allowing her to. Whether this is through guilt, fear of her death, unacknowledged need or love, would need expert help to establish.
“Death and the Family. The Importance of Mourning” by Lily Pincus, Faber & Faber 1976