SF/TSG #013

Family Focus:
When Someone Else Moves In:
Living Together Requires Adjustments And Sensitivity
By Carol Abaya, M.A.


Scenario:  Mildred, 77, lived alone in a neat trailer after her husband died in 1979.  One daughter and two granddaughters lived nearby.

Mildred was very independent and didn’t like to ask for help.

Then Mildred became very ill and was in intensive care for several weeks.  When she returned home, she was mentally confused,  depressed, and panicked at being alone.

Her granddaughter, Jody (mother of four children) stepped in.  Mildred moved in  with Jody, her husband Neil, and four children, ages 3 to 11.  The household also included four cats, a dog and two hamsters.

Mildred’s moving in with Jody culminated several years of change in Mildred’s life and health condition.

Changes Occurred Over Several Years

Jody recalled that about six years before she moved in, Mildred suffered from emphysema and was on a strong medication.  “The medication seemed to make her mentally fuzzy, but the doctor kept increasing the dosage even though grandma is a small person.  He didn’t track results carefully.  She became extremely nervous, and my mother and I were always running back and forth.”

By Christmas that year, Mildred was very depressed -- “Many of my friends were gone”  -- and didn’t want to go out.

“She had all the drapes closed, and the trailer was very dark,” Jody recalls.  By that time, Mildred had also stopped driving.  Jody and her mother Edie were not only doing the grocery shopping but Edie had taken over handling Mildred’s finances.  Sometimes Mildred paid bills twice, while other bills went unpaid.

Mildred’s planned stay with her daughter Edie for Christmas was aborted when Mildred was hospitalized with internal bleeding.  Jody said she thinks the bleeding was caused by the medication.  Mildred did return home.  But said Jody, “She was very confused and didn’t remember when she ate - or didn’t eat - or when she took her medicine.  She also lost weight and was more depressed.”

Mildred spent that Easter with Jody’s family and didn’t want to go home.  And she didn’t.

Why Jody?

Jody’s mother Edie was divorced, lived alone and worked full-time.  Edie’s relationship with Mildred, her mother, had always been strained because of Mildred’s strong personality.  One of Mildred’s other daughters lived in New Jersey and periodically took Mildred for a weekend.  With family problems of her own, she couldn’t  take Mildred full-time.  Mildred’s third daughter lives on the west coast.  Jody’s sister lives in New Jersey with her inlays, husband and two children.

“I care about her,” Jody said, “and with my mother working it’s easier to have her (Mildred) here than to have to run back and forth all the time or to receive panic calls in the middle of the night.”

Mildred is much happier and healthier living with Jody and her family.  She’s put on weight and her blood pressure is stable.  She no longer has panic attacks in the middle of the night.  She spends her days at the local Senior Center.  A bus picks her up every morning at the door and drops her off in the late afternoon.  A neighbor regularly takes Mildred to play bingo at night.  And Jody is there to make sure Mildred properly takes her medication.

Adjustments Many

Having Mildred live with them is “easier,” but is it “easy?”

Said Mildred, “I know they have had to sacrifice.  It has taken time for us to get to know one another.”

Jody and Neil don’t look upon it as a sacrifice.

Jody looks at the situation with hope.   “I didn’t really know her well before.  Now I understand both her and my mother better.”

Neil added, “Mildred is not really a burden.  She’s not an invalid and gets around.  She tries to help clean up in the kitchen and weeds the garden.”

Neil noted that with more people in the house, there has had to be more give and take.  “We’re learning to live with certain things and overlook others,” he said.

Neil recalled that at first he didn’t know whether Mildred would be happy with them, and that concerned him.  “Mildred had to make a big adjustment and let go of some of her own independence.  In her trailer, she had her own friends and schedule,” he said.

As to loss of her own privacy by moving into an active household, Mildred said she doesn’t miss it.  “I raised four kids.  Now I have four more.  You don’t forget how to raise them.  Now I feel like a family.”

Mildred smiles and added, “Jody is easy going.”  And looking across the couch at Neil, “and he’s not too bad.”  Everyone laughs.

Space and privacy have been only one concern.  With four active children, three adults of different generations and an average sized house, everyone has had to adjust.  Neil, a custom cabinetmaker by profession, finished expanding the house himself.  Until the new addition was completed, Mildred and the children shared sleeping and bathroom space.

Mildred has her own room and bath with an outdoor entrance, and all the children have their own room.

Mildred also has her own TV, so she can watch “her” programs, and her own small refrigerator so she has her favorite foods and juice close by.  However, Jody and Neil have a second mortgage to pay for the addition and worry about paying it.

How Does Jody Cope?

Jody deals with having to take care of another person on a day-to-day basis.  “She’s absent-minded and doesn’t remember everything, and little incidents can drive  you nuts.  She periodically accuses one of us of taking something of hers, and it hurts that she doesn’t trust us.  Sometimes the items aren’t even hers, but she thinks they are,” she said.

At times Mildred gets depressed and said Jody, “When I see her depressed, I’m not happy.  It’s hard for me, and I try to understand her better.”

Mildred’s own unhappiness seems to spill over to how she handles relationships and what she say to others.  “At times she is unkind,” sighed Jody.  “And it hurts that she doesn’t always trust the children.”

Jody also said that Mildred usually doesn’t come out and ask Jody to do something for her.  “She walks around mumbling that she needs a haircut, but won’t come out and ask me to take her.  So I have to take the initiative.”

At other times, Mildred wants things done immediately.  “She is an adult but sometimes acts like a child,” Jody said.  “I think she doesn’t realize that what she says or does hurts us.”

Mildred also has a hearing problem, but won’t get a hearing aid.  Jody said that sometimes Mildred interferes in conversations with the children because she doesn’t hear properly.  And that creates problems.       

“At times, I have to sit back and realize it’s not easy for her and that she’s been trying to adjust,” she said.  “She has a lot of pride - sometimes stubborn pride, and that isn’t always easy to deal with.”

While Jody’s mother is nearby to help - and she does - Jody said she sometimes feels alone.  Her strong religious beliefs and support from her husband help her get through the tough days. 

Relations With Great-Grandchildren

Relations between Mildred and her great-grandchildren were at times rocky.

While the family always spent time together during the holidays and special occasions, Jody noted that neither she or the children really knew Mildred before she moved in.

Jody said, “I do hope the children see that family is important and we just don’t throw away old people.  The elderly need to know they will be cared for.

“The children sometimes feel she is an intrusion even though we discussed the situation as a family beforehand.  Sometimes they don’t understand why she has to be here.”

As can be expected, the children’s reactions are mixed.

Nine-year old Jessica looks at the positive side.  She likes her great-grandmother:  “She smiles a lot.  I like her being around; she’s fun.”  Jessica also admitted she likes playing games with Mildred because “she plays what I like to play.”  Jessica added that she tells Mildred things she doesn’t tell anyone else.

When asked how he feels about Mildred living with them, seven-year-old Christopher shyly moved his hands to indicate mixed feelings.  He too said he likes playing cards with Mildred and talking with her “especially after a bad day at school.”

Among the biggest adjustments are discipline and Jody’s having less time for the children.

“The children test her (Mildred) to see who is the ultimate authority,” Jody noted, “and sometimes are too fresh.”

Neil said, “They have to learn to deal with someone who does not have authority, but for whom they have to show respect.”

The children acknowledge the “testing.”  But Jessica admits she feels bad when she “gets in trouble” with Mildred.

Rachel, the oldest, has had more difficulty.  “Mildred picks on Rachel more often for no valid reason.  And Rachel doesn’t take it well and argues back,” Jody said.

A Point of No Return???

Both Jody and Neil agree that they won’t sacrifice their own relationship or that with their children.  Neil admits he is concerned about the stress on Jody.  “I want to make sure Jody does not over do it (having to juggle everyone’s needs).”

For as long as possible, Mildred has a home with them.

P.S.  Mildred lived with Jody and her family for two years.  Alzheimer’s then took it’s toll, and Mildred was placed in a nursing home.  She was there for about 18 months, before
passing on.



Look For Trigger Signs

Mildred’s situation points our several “trigger signs,” which can indicate future problems and should be closely watched and evaluated by The Sandwich Generation.  Often the “signs” are not obvious, and change occurs over time.  But once identified, intervention is usually warranted.

Medication:  Over-medication or the wrong medication can have dire side affects and can result in mental confusion as well as other problems.  Also, many medicines reduce the appetite of the taker, which then impacts overall health.

Depression:  Losing long-time friends and neighbors - either by death or they’ve moved away - can have devastating effects on older people.  New friends are hard to find, and new relationships are more difficult to establish as one ages.  Depression often leads to loss of appetite, which then impacts overall health.

Change in everyday living habits:  When a “social” person becomes reclusive, there’s trouble ahead.  In this case, Mildred, who loved to be with people, wouldn't leave her home.  Lack of socialization increases a sense of isolation and rejection, which can lead to a deterioration of basic health and well-being.



Daughter’s Work Precluded Daily Care

Mildred’s daughter Edie was in an unusual position.  She worked for the local office on Aging.  She knew the needs of the elderly and the problems of coping with aging relatives.  But knowing about the problems on an impersonal basis differs greatly from having to deal with one’s own mother.

“I couldn’t quit my job,” Edie said, “I need the money as well as the benefits.  Both my mother and I could not live on her social security.”

In addition, Edie was never  close to her mother, who  always had a strong personality and “ruled” the family.

So Edie’s own guilt trips weren’t easy to deal with.  She  felt guilty that she couldn’t take care of her mother.  And she felt guilty that Jody and Neil took the brunt of the care problems.

How Does She Handle It??

Edie’s religious upbringing and beliefs are very important to her.  Her church and friends have given her a lot of emotional support.  “We are accountable to God to do the best we can,” Edie said.

And so she does the best she can.  Edie supports Jody and Neil in several ways.

First, she had to make some hard decisions when Mildred became too demanding.  “She never had much money,” Edie said, “but now for some reason she thinks she does.  At times I have to be the bad guy.  This takes pressure off of Jody.”

Second, she does what she can to give Jody a break.  “My major concern is Jody and Neil’s marriage.  They have a good one and are a loving family.  I try to give Jody emotional support.  I also do whatever I can for the kids.  I love having them with me.”

Edie also attributes some of her peace of mind to the Senior Center.  “It’s one of the finest in the county.  They do so much, and it has a nice atmosphere,” she said

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for yourself and family.
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