Caring for family

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    Long post warning.

    I’m not a concise person and I wanted to give some background information as I am seeking some insight and advice on ways I could support my Mum and Nana. My mum moved in with Nana about a year ago to help out with Nana getting older. They butt heads on things, which can be a strain on their relationship and stressful for them individually.

    My mum and dad divorced when I was little, and Nana was a key support for us. We lived with her for a bit, then lived in a rental house around the corner from her. After that Mum and Nana bought a house together, Nana sold her house and lived in the granny flat at the new house. She was a teacher and worked contracts at all different schools-sometimes living and working away for a few months at a time, the rest of the time living with us. My mum has bipolar/depression (which was then undiagnosed) so things could be a bit unpredictable at home, she wasn’t always good with money and routines, had extreme mood swings etc. Nana was a bit of a rock for us-she was dependable and consistent, she helped out financially, she’d take my sister and I out to do stuff when mum didn’t want to leave her room, she’d do thoughtful stuff to take care of us, like making us school lunches even though we were in highschool and could do it ourselves.

    When I finished highschool, Nana retired from teaching. Mum and I moved to Brisbane to go to uni, and be closer to my older sister and Nana moved into the house her Dad had built (it was like the holiday house we’d go to on weekends, Nana lived there times she was working around that area). We left the family cat with her (because we wouldn’t have been able to rent with them). So we lived apart, but she would fly to visit us, and we’d go visit her, my sister and I would take her on holidays to other places-Sydney, Hobart. She had many friends in the area, other family that lived close, she joined the garden club and volunteered at the towns information centre/museum. We’d talk on the phone and email a lot. She got out and did things a lot, and connected with people.

    A couple of years ago she had a fall while out on a group trip at a national park, then she got a bad chest infection that she left for a while before going to doctors about. Then the cat passed away from old age. Things went a bit downhill for her from there-like she lost confidence. She also changed doctors and her new doctor somehow decided it would be a good idea to take nana off the antidepressants she had been on since her son died-so she’d been on them for about 40 years. He did this WITHOUT any gradual decreases, or substitutions or observation. (she no longer sees this doctor) So that really didn’t help matters.

    She developed a stammer-which for Nana is a very hard thing, she’s always loved to talk-to anyone and everyone. She also has a lot of pride, and is very stubborn. She was independent and in control of her life (and took on much of the responsibility for caring for others). She got withdrawn and negative. She has always had a negative streak. Like she’s always had this thing that if things are going really well she’ll say to be careful that ‘The Thing That Listens’ doesn’t hear. ‘The Thing That Listens’ is something that comes along to throw a spanner in the works. But on the opposite side she’s always instilled in my sister and I that you can choose to look for and create good things in your life even at tough times.

    Mum hasn’t worked for many years due to her condition, so she was in a position where she could move and be closer to Nana. So she moved and rented a house near Nana about 2 years ago so that she should be around to help with things. In that time Nana had a couple of falls trying to do things that weren’t entirely safe for her. One of them was a fall out at the front of the yard where she couldn’t get up, and she was out there for over an hour until someone walking by was able to help her up. Nana is the first to nag any of us about our health, but with her own she’ll put things off-avoid going to doctors when she feels unwell, not tell doctors full extent of things. She’d try to hide things about her health from mum. Like calling the ambulance when she had a fall and not having doctors notify mum she was in the hospital-so mum arrived at her house, car was there but no sign of nana.

    So that led to the decision for Mum to live with her. Neither of them were particularly happy with the decision. Mum had just gotten herself settled in at her rental property and was enjoying being there. And Nana didn’t want to lose her independence, or to need someone. Since mum moved in Nana had another fall one night just getting up to go to the bathroom-mum was there to call the ambulance. Nana badly fractured her shoulder and had to spend several weeks in the hospital. Since then she needs help with things like bathing (has a carer come in to do this, because she doesn’t want mum to), she lost her licence.

    Nana sees a therapist, as does Mum, and they sometimes go to one together too. They are both on medications. Nana also now has a really nice, through doctor who she sees regularly. From the appointments mum has been in with Nana, and what Nana has said from her own appointments-Nana doesn’t really listen to these professionals she ‘doesn’t believe in depression’, she doesn’t do the exercises she’s been given because she says she feels too weak. The doctors have run many tests and told her the weakness is because she’s not using those muscles and exercise is the only way to improve.

    Mum is wonderful at taking care of people when they are in need-thoughtful and practical and funny. Growing up, my sister and I used to love getting sick, because Mum would be a mum for us-we’d feel taken care of. The rest of the time, we needed to be more independent, help care for mum. Mum’s also very good in a crisis-it’s like a switch will flip and all the things she usually struggles with due to her mental illness will go on pause and she becomes decisive and cool headed and takes charge. Mum also does better when she has a bit of routine in her life, something to focus/direct her thinking, give her purpose. So in that regard the move has been really good for her-she’s even reconnected with old friends and has become social, gotten back into gardening.

    But on the other hand, it is very hard on her because she struggles with her own feelings, and now has nana’s too. Also it’s hardest because nana is openly resentful towards mum, and that’s very hurtful. Mum is scared about Nana hurting herself-like falling- so gets frustrated with Nana doing things that aren’t safe and can yell and boss about, and she tends to hover around and try to observe everything nana does. She also gets frustrated that nana doesn’t take care of herself-Nana doesn’t do the exercises the doctors recommends, doesn’t want to wear her hearing aid, and then complains that Mum doesn’t tell her anything. She tries to hide health concerns, until mum pushes her or goes into doctors appointments with her and Mum tells them herself.

    Nana also uses her health to avoid interacting with mum eg. when I’ve been there I have observed on many occasions Mum trying to talk with Nana-sometimes it’s about things like when appointments are, but sometimes it’s just trying to have a nice chat. Nana will respond with an exaggerated stammer, speaking in few words and tell mum she just can’t talk today, but then a few moments later (usually when mum has left the room) she’ll start chatting to me without any issue at all. Mum says Nana does this sort of thing often. Nana will also want to do something, like rearrange her room-but keep putting mum off all day when mum offers to help, but then when mum gets ready to go to bed (and thinks nana is heading to bed) nana will decide she wants to do it then. Mum then responds by getting frustrated and upset.

    Mum finds solace in the garden. She goes outside and does jobs and has some space to herself working on something she enjoys. But she also feels guilty, because gardening was a passion of nanas-she tries to keep it looking nice for nana, but also she feels she’s taken it over. She tries to include nana in all the decisions, or get nana out to do things that aren’t too physical. But Nana often refuses. And then complains about things mum has done once Mum has finished.

    We are trying to get mum back into her art too (painting, drawing, sewing-she’s very talented). When I visited last year I took on the project of setting up mum’s room. She hadn’t really unpacked from when she moved in. And one corner of the room had boxes of nana’s stuff she didn’t want to get rid of. Mum is a messy person so the place looked like an episode of one of those hoarders shows…and this was mum’s space in the house. She just didn’t have the energy to go through it. So I asked if I could do it for her when she was away. So I cleaned it all, sorted things out. Nana let me go through her stuff with her and we decided what to keep and what could go. I organised the space with furniture to give her a bedroom area, a sitting area and a lounge area. I decorated and put all her art supplies in easy to access storage. I wanted to give her a nice, useable space for herself.

    For Nana, I can only imagine how challenging it is to face that many changes and changes she hasn’t really chosen/instigated herself. Also to feel the loss of independence-going from being the one in control, the one who has been helping people, to having other people trying to do so much for her. Also aging and having your body add to restrictions. And to think about death getting closer-that is terrifying to me. It’s a lot. Mum is also a very big presence to live with. She’s naturally loud (in words and manner), she’s wildly emotional (laughing one second, crying the next), she’s messy. So when you live with her, it can feel like her energy takes over the place. Add to that, mum has taken over many things-like the garden.

    As an adult looking at patterns in my own behaviour, and reflecting on my childhood and the people in my life I think I am very like Nana. Not sure if that’s genetics or me mirroring things I saw in Nana-I certainly looked up to her growing up, so she was a role model. But reflecting on things, I can see where a lot of habits we both have are not always good for us. They may allow us to feel we’ve coped in the moment but create a difficult cycle. I’ve recognised areas for personal growth, but as they are things I’m trying to develop in myself-I’m not really sure how to go about supporting her. Maybe talking to her about the things I’m learning in/about myself?

    Nana’s had a lot of challenges and loss in her life-her parents, sister, brother, son, friends. A couple like her sister and son, suddenly and un-expectantly from car accidents. She loved her husband but divorced him because he was a gambler and then he passed away. Her daughter has mental illness. She practically raised her brothers son from the age of 3 because her brother moved around so much, she helped raise us. So she’s had a lot on her plate.

    I don’t think Nana’s let herself feel and process her feelings when dealing with difficult situations in her life-like things that made her sad and angry-she pushed these feelings away and tried to be strong and get on with things. She focused on seeking out good things and focused on caring for others instead. We very rarely saw her cry-and if we did she apologised for being ‘such a sook’. She rarely yelled at us or expressed anger/annoyance towards us, if she did get angry at someone it made her feel a bit sick. Yet we knew she had a temper, as she’d stomp about and have words with inanimate objects that would play up.

    So I think she has a lot of emotional baggage from the past that she’s never fully processed, and now she has these new feelings. And she can’t cope with them in the ways she’s always done. She has trouble seeking out good things, because she feels she cant do things like she used to-go into the garden, take herself for a drive to somewhere pretty. She doesn’t feel like she can focus on others because she doesn’t feel like she’s in a position to do things for them anymore. So I think she lashes out at mum because she resents her situation, and she feels guilty at mum being there, which just adds to the resentment. Mum is the carer so maybe stands as a mascot for this new phase.

    My sister and I try to offer support. We talk with mum regularly, message mum nearly every day-whether checking in with her, giving her chance to vent or just chatting about random stuff, sharing silly stories. My sister uses face time to talk directly-show her things/see things. We try talking with Nana too but this is harder as she goes through times where she won’t speak on the phone or go on her email. I thought I might try writing her letters too-she probably won’t respond, but at least it offers her that connection. We try to seek Nana’s help on things whenever possible-eg. asking for her suggestions/tips on gardening stuff.

    We go visit them several times a year. I’ve offered to go and stay with nana so mum can have breaks away-they can both have a break from each other. We did this last year and Mum went to Sydney to visit a cousin and have a holiday. It is also set up so nana can go into respite care sometimes if needed-Nana or mum or both can request this.

    We’ve tried speaking to each of them about what we’ve noticed in the way they interact/communicate with each other, offering suggestions in things we think would help them individually. Encouraging mum to have her own life a little more. To let nana have a bit more independence without watching over her. Like if nana is going to have another fall mum’s not always going to be able to prevent it-her last one was just her heading to bathroom. It’s scary but it’s certainly not a lack of care if it happens. Trying to encourage nana to get back into things like reading if she doesn’t want to go out.

    They do have times when they get along really well-laughing at antics of the pets, going on scenic drives. We try to encourage them to do more fun things together.

    Not really sure what else to try. It might just be one of those things to take day by day-some good days, some tough days.

    I thought I might try going to visit them and taking them both away somewhere for a few nights-renting a holiday house or something-change of scenery, doing something nice together.

    If anyone has any suggestions it would be great to hear.




    Dear Meander:

    I read your whole post attentively. Using my own words I will summarize your post as I understand it, trying to present things as simple as possible:

    Your Nana needs help because she is continuing to age, has pre-existing emotional trouble, neglects her health and resists improving her health and safety. She doesn’t like to be helped. She is likely to fall again (which may be fatal, as it is a frequent cause of death in the aging population). Your mother is helping your Nana best she can. Your Nana doesn’t like your mother. But as in any stressful relationship, the two take breaks from misery and laugh or relax with each other occasionally.

    My suggestions: if you haven’t done it so far, do the research on what I mentioned in parenthesis and let your Nana know the simple statistics on the matter, so that you have no doubt that she is aware of the danger in falling, beyond injuries.

    You can give your Nana and mother breaks from their time together, providing very temporary reliefs from their distressing relationship and the cost of it to each one of them. If you can afford it, depending on circumstances and your own well-being in mind.

    See if there is a service you currently don’t know about regarding an agency perhaps that counsels the elderly, aware of that… elderly stubbornness to not exercise, to not ask for help.

    If I was you, I would stay out of the relationship between your mother and Nana, not trying to improve it (beyond the temporary breaks, if you so choose). Way… way too late in this regard and nothing you can do.




    Thanks for taking time to read that!

    You are probably right and I shouldn’t get involved in their relationship. I find it hard not feeling a sense of responsibility for trying to fix things in others lives. Like if they express they are unhappy in something, I’m not really sure how to express my support/care without taking things on board myself.



    Dear Meander:

    You are welcome. When either one expresses to you unhappiness about something, ask yourself first if there is something you can do about it. If you are sure there isn’t, repeat what either one tells you as a way to let her know you heard her. Show empathy if you feel it when you repeat what she told you. That in itself is often helpful.

    If you think there may be something you can do, ask either one what it may be that you can do. If she comes up with something, consider it. If none, well, say: I wish there was something I could do. I so wish I could help.


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