My Name is Denise and I Am A Control Freak

For almost two years I have been receiving automatically generated emails from Rightmove, the property website. Each one reveals a tantalising property or two in a custom-defined area of the Lake District capable (or potentially capable) of housing three generations of our family. We have cooed and what-iffed and demolished walls, converted garages and extended rooms in our imaginations.

This weekend brought with it the stark realisation that all of this forward thinking and planning and research may have been for nothing.

I had yet another confrontation with my mother-in-law who is in week two of a rehabilitation period. She is recovering slowly from a mid-shaft fracture of the tibia of a leg which had recently undergone replacement knee surgery for the second time. Does that make sense? Basically, at the moment, her right leg is knackered. And she is railing at the world, or more specifically, at me because, in her words, she just wants to be left alone. She is fed up with her lack of mobility, with being confined to the house, with ‘strangers’ coming in twice a day, with the mountain of Tena Lady pads in the garage and with me.

In the past my organisational skills have been praised to high heaven. She tells all the health professionals (and there have been many in the last four years) she comes into contact with that ‘my daughter-in-law deals with X’. And I do. Because she is not confident with finances, because she is unable to make a case for herself because she cannot hold the thread of an argument and because, frankly, sometimes she simply cannot see the bigger picture and makes appalling decisions (solar roof panels at the age of 80?)

Since returning from her most recent stay in hospital she has found my efforts intrusive, overbearing, controlling… She hasn’t said as much but that was the inference I drew following our most recent (and voluble) bust-up.

It was 11.45am and neither mum, nor her 94 year old aunt had eaten breakfast. She knows from the Intermediate Care Team – who are currently in charge of her reablement and rehabilitation – how important it is not to skip meals. Typical reasons given are “It’s been mayhem here” (translation: the carer has been) or “We’ve been busy.” Too ‘busy’ to eat? I am more concerned that Aunty is forced into this regime because she is unwilling to ‘rock the boat’. She goes along with everything my mother-in-law dictates because she just wants a quiet life. But she is 94 and everything has slowed down, including her bowels. Eating little and often would be good for her, but it is not to be. As a result she suffers from constipation in the upper bowel which leads to ‘leaks’ which she is unaware of until it is too late. She is a proud and very private lady and this loss of control is extremely upsetting for her.

Ironically the Tena Lady pads delivery was the next point of conflict. I checked the delivery against the delivery note and noticed that only 1 packet of pants had been delivered, rather than 20. When I pointed this out to mum she said it didn’t matter because she washed them anyway. These are disposable products for ease of use why would she want to hand-wash? Everyday tasks are difficult enough when you’re walking and standing with the aid of a Zimmer frame. “Well, that’s what the District Nurse told me to do!” Did she really?

We moved on to a discussion about the kitchen chair raisers added to lift the seat to make it easier for mum to get in and out of. We all agreed they were not the most attractive addition to the furniture. She then directed her aunt to sit in the adapted chair. When I said that this was the chair she herself should be using mum averred and said it didn’t matter because the Occupational Therapist would soon be bringing some more. “But you just said they were hideous!” “Well they’re quite useful actually.” I laughed. And she turned on me, wagging her finger in my face, “Don’t laugh.” I could tell as soon as I arrived that mum was not in a good mood and I should have turned around and walked straight back out.

And that was it. A couple of trivial incidents and one major bone of contention and I’m left seriously doubting our grand plans for multigenerational living. And with them, our future.

I can hold my hands up and admit that I am a control freak. I like lists, schedules, punctuality and routine. When faced with an unknown situation or new problem I will immediately turn to the internet and research so that I am informed and able to advocate accordingly. It has stood me in good stead until now. I spent the best part of 2012 lobbying for a place at residential college for our learning disabled son. And was successful. Now I fear failure.

I walk in to my mother-in-law’s home and see disorganisation and my stomach goes into knots. I dread what new scheme she may have agreed to during the course of a cold call or seeing yet another shoe box from the expensive mail order company. Shoes she will never wear because her feet are swollen and misshapen. And I think about Atul Gawande‘s book Being Mortal and realise that I need to let go. I need to let her rail and make mistakes and go about things in her own sweet way. Because she is 83 years old and she is not going to change. I have to take a step back (several steps?) and become less involved (interfering?) and only then will the tension subside.

My husband is an only child. His father died over the course of a week in August 2007. I was there, with my mother-in-law, throughout. When I was left alone with him I held my father-in-law’s hand and told him not to worry, that we would look after mum. And I stand by that promise. We must look after her (as much as she will allow us to). But perhaps, despite all our plans, it cannot be in the same house after all?

I Am Sandwich Woman

1964: Child, Mother, Grandmothers and Great-Grandmother

And by that I mean, I’m not just fond of a bacon butty (which I most certainly am), I am becoming part of the so-called ‘sandwich generation’: “those who are simultaneously providing care, including financial support, to younger and older generations at the same time.” It is also a nod to Allison Pearson’s column about the fictional character Kate Reddy who finds herself torn between the needs of children and parents.

Women like my mother aimed to be married by the age of 21. Any older and you were in danger of being ‘left on the shelf’. Invariably babies soon followed. So it was with both of our mothers. By the time they were forty their offspring were leaving home for first jobs or university. When I was forty my children were aged 10 and 7. When my husband was forty our eldest child wasn’t even a twinkle in his father’s eye.

Like many couples we now have children who, although they are of college age, are still dependent on us to varying degrees. In DD’s case she still needs us to ferry her about to social engagements, while H may never be wholly independent  (he is learning disabled). At the same time our parents are becoming ever-more-reliant on our help and advice.

These, then, are our sandwich years: sandwiched between children and parents. Not for us the responsibility-free years enjoyed by our parents, who, from the age of 45 onwards only had themselves to please. These were (literally) their carefree (care-free) years.

Once or twice DD has said that she intends to have her children while she is “still young.” My initial reaction was to throw up my hands in horror. But she probably has the right idea. By the time she is my age (50) we, her parents, will be 83 and 94 if we are (un)lucky enough to live so long. In addition, she may also have the added responsibility of caring for her brother. So it would seem we are bringing up the next generation of sandwich carers.

Since 2010 we have been ‘keeping an eye on’ my husband’s mum and her aunt who live together in a nearby market town. They are both fiercely independent, capable, house-proud, northern women. Auntie has been widowed for thirty years and as such has learned to fend for herself. MiL (mother-in-law) was widowed in 2007 and has found it difficult adjusting to being the sole decision-maker.

For the time being our caring is a juggled, from-a-distance affair. This coming Thursday we will take MiL into hospital for a(nother) knee replacement operation. Then OH will pick H up from college for the half-term break. And finally I will take DD to stay with Auntie so that she doesn’t have to go into respite care whilst MiL is in hospital. Like I said, juggling.

Keep your fingers crossed that all goes to plan x