Dealing with Interfering Adults

My friend, Geetha constantly complains about how her mum and mother-in-law interfere with everything she does.  “They have an opinion for everything I do”, she says with a sigh.  “They are ready to criticize the way I bring up my children, or run my house or even sometimes the way I speak to my husband. I feel I am constantly being judged.” The frustration over not being allowed to figure things on our own has been expressed so many times across generations. So why is it that as people get older they forget that they were once young too – and perhaps went through this same ordeal?

Sometimes people want to ‘manage’ the lives of younger loved ones, to assert their authority, or maybe because they care. They’ve been through the grind and have seen the pitfalls, and want to protect them against likely mishaps. At other times, however, they interfere merely because they want to have their opinion heard. Geetha says more often than not, she ignores the constant comments and continues to do her own thing. But, ever so often, there are sharp and sarcastic remarks that fly pass her that really upset her. “We listened to our elders when we were young, but nowadays children think they know better”, is a very common jibe thrown her way.

It wasn’t very long ago when many aged parents lived together with their grown children and grandchildren. Elders’ seniority allowed them to prevail over most family matters whether they were right or wrong. However, over the years, things have changed rapidly. Today there is a growing need to assert oneself and make one’s own decisions. Today’s young adults have a lot more information at their disposal that they tend to rely on. As a result, young adults today are far less dependent upon their elders for guidance.  They prefer to make their mistakes and learn from them. They prefer to seek out the latest trends rather than follow ‘outdated’ information. This is something that Geetha’s elders and so many others do not understand. They can’t accept that Geetha would trust a computer over the first hand experience that they can offer her.

To better understand this conflict, we interviewed several senior citizens and researched online resources.  What we found was what the younger generation tended to brush off as stubbornness and interference was often an attempt to be heard and acknowledged. Geetha for example admits that she blocks out her elders out of exasperation and the fear that if she listens to them it might lead to never ending interference.

Perhaps if Geetha did accept at least some of the input provided by her elders, it might actually make them ease up a bit. This would make them feel more relevant and wanted – which is a greatly felt need for the elderly the world over. However, it is also recommended that we establish clear boundaries.  Older parents, in-laws and other seniors, who are advising their adult children, should be made to understand that the final decision on matters will be in the hands of the younger generation. At the same time, their advice would be respected and even welcomed.  The older generation has a treasure trove of information that could be of immense use to their younger counterparts.  For instance, often times, home remedies work better for minor ailments than the pharmaceuticals a doctor would usually prescribe.  For example, Geetha says her mum-in-law uses a bee’s honey and lime mixture for a cough. She tried it a couple of times and it does soothe an irritated throat.

Looking at it from the seniors point of view, they should understand that though they do have a lot to offer, they need to share advice without making it look like they are finding fault.  For instance they could rephrase their inputs as ‘during our time we did it like this – you could try this out if you like.’  The important thing for elders to remember is that their children are not children anymore. Sometimes, they need to back off and let them make their own decisions – and mistakes. At the same time, they need to keep themselves open for discussion so that when their children really want their advice they can easily turn to them. This way their children will value advice better and accept it without resentment.

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How much of yourself do you give?

For care givers often the quandary is ‘How much of myself do I give?’ As loved ones get less capable and more dependent physically and emotionally, the burden of looking after an older person can get more and more wearisome even for the most committed caregiver.

Let’s take the example of Anoma, a mother of two with an aging father in her care. After the loss of her mother, her father seemed to withdraw from the world. He stopped meeting up with friends and, as his faculties deteriorated he lost interest in most activities. In a bid to force her father out of his shell, Anoma began to include him in as many of her social engagements as possible and took over many of his responsibilities. What she found was that soon her father began to depend entirely on her and her family for most of his physical, social and emotional needs. Moreover, her father became less forgiving when the support was not available. If she was ill or busy with her kids, he would get snappy and irritable. Anoma found herself torn between despair, love, guilt and anger.

Anoma’s dilemma has been echoed on several caregiver posts and blogs and the consensus is that setting boundaries early on makes the relationship between the caregiver and the elder healthier and stronger. Saying ‘no’ is not easy and can break one’s heart, but setting certain rules and gently, though firmly ensuring that those rules are not broken gives caregivers the time and space they need to look after their own needs. This will help bolster the resources and energy caregivers need to provide better long term care.

However, where does one start if the caregiver is already in a relationship where the elder in their care is used to having them on call at all times. It starts first with carefully thinking out the boundaries that would work for both parties. The next step would be for the caregiver to have a conversation with their elderly loved one about where they stand while clearly conveying the new boundaries that they feel would work. What would help is, keeping the explanation simple and clear so that it doesn’t become a protracted negotiation. The caregiver needs to make it clear that while they may be less involved on certain instances, viable alternatives have been thought out such that the person being cared for is always looked after.  The alternatives could even be encouraging the elder person to be more independent. Finally, the caregiver must clearly communicate that their loved one is not being abandoned. On the contrary this change will help create a stronger, and more enjoyable and pleasant relationship between the caregiver and the elderly.

Conveying the new rules is the easier part, implementing the same may prove to be a bigger challenge. There could be a constant pull at the heartstrings and play on your guilt, but the caregiver has to be consistent. Every concession that is made will make the elder in their care take the new rules less seriously. Caregivers need to show their elders that while their concern and love has not reduced, the rules will not be bent. Eventually things will start getting easier. Caregivers can improve the moments spent with their loved one with more conversations, sharing of interests, and trips down memory lane. Eventually as the new rules come to be accepted, caregivers will discover a new found pleasure in their relationships with their elders.

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