I am torn between my mother’s needs due to stroke-induced disability and my own dire health, after battling breast cancer for five years.
Thought of the week
Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness… Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find the words.
Rainer Maria Rilke (Austrian writer, 1875-1926)
I’m now back on chemo. Multiple operations and powerful drugs have left me physically weak and not much use to Mother.
My sister has taken on the role of main carer, controlling almost every aspect of her life, while bringing up two young children and trying to keep up her career, working from home. I appreciate the burden she bears and how demanding her life is. But we do not have a good relationship.
Visiting Mother (an hour’s drive) can be hard, due to my condition. I have begged her to use some of her savings for carers. But my sister has almost complete control of our mother’s finances, and Mother won’t discuss using her own money to help herself.
At 80, and once a fiercely independent woman, she’s now a wizened sparrow, like a prisoner in her own home, only seeing social services carers, my sister (who devotes a lot of time to daily needs) and me on brief visits.
Her only outings are to medical appointments — she hasn’t even been in the garden she adores as somebody has to help her outside and I’m not strong enough.
A possible pleasure, food, is also denied her, as my (rather obsessive) sister has her on a particular diet, even though Mother has been tested for food intolerances and has none.
Everyone in our circle agrees she should be able to enjoy good food. But my sister has banished even fruit, which my mother loves, so she is always constipated. She lives on a dreary diet and I have to collude, as Mother is too afraid to challenge my sister.
You’ll say I must talk to my sister! I tried — in a long email she ignored. She punished my mother instead by doing only the minimum. When I asked my sister to consider extra private care, she texted: ‘Do what you want.’
I arranged a chat with a private care agency to assess my mother’s needs — changing the appointment to fit my sister’s schedule — but the day before the appointment, my mother called on my sister’s phone, very upset, and told me to cancel everything, she said she didn’t need any extra care.
Friends have tried talking to my sister — to no avail. The stress of seeing Mother so reduced is taking its toll on my health. My children say I must look after myself, as she may be my mother, but I am theirs.
They worry my inevitable death will be hastened by my mother and sister’s refusal to use her considerable financial resources to improve her life. What do you think about this complex dilemma about conflicting needs?
This week Bel Mooney advises a woman who says that her sister has total control over her sick mum
This makes me feel I am tip-toeing into a minefield. It made me think, ‘There but for fortune’, and I suspect many readers will agree.
You call your problem ‘complex’; I would like readers to know that your original was 1,736 words, edited to 460 here. So there is information I have which will inform my attempt at a reply.
I tread with care because this story concerns three main players — all vulnerable in different ways.
Your mother’s situation is pitiable in the extreme, but so is your own condition, made worse by this sense of guilt and frustration.
Then there is your sister who (no matter what instant judgments readers might be tempted to make) is surely doing her best as she sees it.
In spite of your differences, you are quick to acknowledge the demands made on her. There must be days when she feels under much stress — and a letter from her could spell that out in ways perhaps even you are unaware of.
More from Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail…
Readers will argue that she is obviously a controlling person and her treatment of your mother stems from her ego rather than what your mother wants.
It’s worrying if your mother really is ‘afraid’ of this strong-minded daughter; nevertheless your honest praise of your sister has to be remembered.
Whatever the truth, it’s my view that elderly people need treats — and if that includes grapes and chocolates when there is no evidence whatsoever of allergy, then give what makes them happy. She suffers enough with her disability.
I wish your mother’s GP could be involved or a private dietitian hired to mediate.
No matter how well-intentioned your sister is, she must ask herself how far she is motivated by her own obsession and how far by a genuine care for her mother’s likes, dislikes and needs.
I need to be neutral because it’s essential your relationship does not break down. If your mother’s spirits would be lifted by her garden or a visit to the park and your sister has no time, the help of a private carer is essential.
The funds are there, so there’s no reason not to use them. This would, after all, lift a burden from your sister. You need to sit down with her, face to face, and draw up a plan. She knows how ill you are, so it would be wrong of her to refuse.
You say others have tried to intervene, but your tricky sister has put them off. Now your adult children are anxious about you — and since this vulnerable lady is their grandmother, I wish they would give practical help.
Yes, people are busy; on the other hand, sacrifices can be made. Can’t at least one of them become your ‘envoy’ and converse with their aunt — to help lift your burden of anxiety?
Am I too dull to keep any friends?
When I make new friends all is well for a while. We meet and message regularly, but then they develop other friendships and interests. Soon meetings and messaging becomes intermittent.
I decided I must have a boring personality and so I have incorporated aspects of personalities of people who are popular in the hope it would make a difference. But it has not been as successful as I hoped it would be — and by taking this course I don’t know how to be myself any more.
I cannot have a relaxed conversation with most people because I am constantly thinking about what to say next, feeling on edge in case I stay on one subject too long. At work, I see my colleagues develop friendships and wonder why it is different for me.
I joined a gym in the hope I would make new friends, but to no avail — most come along with friends and those on their own don’t talk to anyone.
I sometimes feel isolated when I see photos of my friends on social media within their new friendship groups.
I don’t know what the answer is to my dilemma.
Your subject was, ‘Why do friends desert me?’ — but I ask, why have you deserted yourself?
This short email evokes an image of a little figure on an empty stage, surrounded by theatrical props, donning first this mask, then that one, a wig, a hat… then picking up different scripts to learn some lines and waiting for the audience to applaud the character you’re trying to become.
But they don’t. Because most people have acute antennae which detect fakery. We want to relate to real people, not impersonators.
Yes, most of us learn how to ‘perform’ in different situations because it’s a way of coping and even shy people can learn strategies for social life.
T.S.Eliot’s anxious poem of alienation, The Love Song Of J.Alfred Prufrock, contains the memorable line: ‘There will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.’
Even confident folk will, when necessary, wear a ‘face’ that suits the room to be entered. You’ve let this instinctive tendency take over, obliterating your own true self.
You don’t reveal your age, but I’m guessing you are under 35. I hope so, because the younger you are, the more chance you have of breaking the habit of self-erasure.
First, I’d like you to answer questions: did your parents have friends and encourage your friendships?
Did you ever have a real best friend? Were you the kind of teenager others confided in? Did you confide in others?
Self-examination is essential — not to understand why ‘friends desert you’, but to work out whether you’ve ever been the kind of friend that you would want for yourself. Write it down. It clarifies the mind.
Go to the gym to get fit, but it’s not a place for chat. Anything you do with the specific goal of making new friends is likely to fail, because the motivation is wrong.
Genuine interests need developing for their own sakes — not used as a means to an end. Plus, if you throw yourself keenly into an activity, you’re likely to become a more interesting personality.
Similarly, when you talk to people because you’re truly interested in what they have to say, conversational self-consciousness disappears. But you are making everything about you and your desperate needs.
Try taking a deep breath and imagine what private pain is carried by each person you meet.
Asking questions and listening to the replies and then following up with an observation about what you’ve just heard — this is the key to conversation.
Concentrate on this and you won’t have time to worry about what to say next.
Instead of obsessing about being interesting, you need to become interested — in everything you do and in the people you meet.
Your real self will grow as you care about what makes other people tick.
And Finally…..When we endure, so does love
The news story about 81-year-old Eileen Macken being reunited with her 103-year-old mother (after a 60-year search) moved me deeply.
Mrs Macken was born in a mother-and-baby home and raised in an orphanage in Dublin. Those were tough times but Eileen hoped one day she would be reunited with her mother — and at last it happened, thanks to DNA testing.
This heart-warming story could be fiction.
My parents’ generation was stalwart. When disappointment or even disaster struck they would say: ‘Y’just have to get on with it’ — and do just that.
I bet this is how Eileen and her mother carried on through the years, always wondering and yearning, but being brave. Because there’s no choice really. If you succumb to despair, you go under.
Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week.
Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A pseudonym will be used if you wish.
Bel reads all letters but regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
All this is in my mind because I recently finished what is for me the best, most moving novel of the year so far. We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet is a quiet masterpiece of love and loss, ‘abandoned’ children and rescue and courage sweeping from World War II to 2010.
Just as Eileen Macken was ‘lost’ and ultimately found, so too Ellen Parr, the heroine of We Must Be Brave, is lost to the strange, seemingly orphaned child she adored.
I will not spoil the clever, powerful plot. Except to say that magnificent, decent, generous Ellen goes on being brave, even when her heart is broken.
The beautifully written novel had me sobbing, yet addicted — and the real life story of Mrs Macken brought it all back. It reminded me that people endure — and so does love.
Human beings cluster within many different sorts of family unit, find solace through helping each other and discover that affection can be stronger than blood ties.
Quiet resilience, matter-of-fact bravery (under-rated these days) and dogged ‘getting on with it’ helps keep hope alive — as Eileen Macken discovered in the end.