Friday, March 07, 2008

Senior Self-Reliance and Independence

"Widow's lack of independence after 5 years burdens her children." This is the headline for Amy Dickenson's "Ask Amy" column in the March 6 Chicago Tribune. It seems that when their mother was widowed five years ago, twelve siblings collaborated on figuring out what she should do after selling her house. They decided that she should buy a condo.

The problem is that the mother made clear that she didn't want to live alone, so the "children" agreed that they would rotate the job of staying with her overnight, seven nights a week. The strain on the siblings and their families is evident, according to the son-in-law who wrote, "Worn Out in New England." After five years of this, he wonders if there isn't a better way.

I'm not sure "Worn Out in New England's" letter is real (twelve children, all cooperating?) If the letter is real, that part of the story is amazing. However, as an outsider, a senior with no children at all, I'm tempted to ask these questions:

1. How old is this mother? She's described as fairly healthy, still walking every day, and still driving.

2. Why, if, as the letter says, "The family is worn out and wants things to change," will "no one speak up"?

3. Does such extreme martyrdom still exist? If so, is it really commendable?

4. Here's the main question: What is the mother's opinion on all of this? Has anyone asked?

As a childless senior widow who has lived alone, mostly in a condo, for eight years now, I find the whole situation puzzling. Having constant and every-changing overnight guests, no matter how beloved, would drive me crazy.

Assuming that the mother is of sound mind, why do her children need to make living decisions for her? Is this part of a dangerous trend: well-intentioned younger people deciding what to do with "the old folks"?

Whatever happened to self-reliance? A woman with the strength to raise twelve children surely should be able to make her own decicisions. Again, has anyone asked?

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne


Arlene said...


When I was "the daughter" of my two aging parents (I am an only child), I was incredulous at the number of articles I read on "Caring for Your Aging Parents" that were completely unrealistic about the degree of control children have over their parents' affairs.

These authors generally suggested that the children fly into their parents' city and drive out to their home. Then they should:

1) Have "the talk" about the parents' finances.
2) Take away the parents' car keys.
3) Move the parents into assisted living.
4) Take time out for a lunch break.

That's totally insane, of course, but having twelve adult children accommodating a parent to this degree of inconvenience is equally mad.

The reality seems to be that "decisions" about frail elders are really made by finances, health problems, and transportation logistics. The results are often sad compromises for everyone.

As a culture, we're not good at this phase of life. The reason is, I believe, is that it's so new. People simply didn't live this long until very recently.

seniorwriter said...

You're so right, Arlene. It's a new, confusing world. It can be scary for someone like me without children, but it may be even more scary for those who do have children. "Sad compromise" does seem to be the only answer.