This week: my mother-in-law wants to share our walks

Nell's mother-in-law is 75 and, despite a diminishing physical capacity, insists on accompanying her and her husband on country walks. Although Nell hasn't said anything yet, they feel that the old lady interferes with their recreation. Should she say something?

Crippled with arthritis, Nell's 75-year-old mother-in-law won't be left out on long walks round her Devon home. Her pain slows them up. Nell and her husband visit every six weeks; he says he won't pace his life to suit her all the time. Why can't she sit in the shade and have a cup of tea instead?

The question Nell and her husband are really asking about his mother is "Why doesn't she grow old gracefully?" In other words, why doesn't she keep out of sight in a rose-filled room doing the crossword puzzle before emerging occasionally with lipstick on and only staying until it dissolves into the lines around her mouth? Why doesn't she sleep about 15 hours a day (despite the fact that old people sleep less than younger people) and listen to Brahms on headphones before appearing for a cup of Earl Grey tea and a scone? Why doesn't she, at nine-o'clock at night, pick up her knitting and say she has to get some rest?

Those days, dear Nell, are over. Apparently we all see ourselves as 20 years younger than we really are and this means that Nell's mother-in- law imagines that she is a mere 55.

She is not going to be beaten by walks - and aren't Nell and her husband lucky that she isn't?

Here is this fiercely independent woman who maintains a large house in Devon, who puts up with being visited only once every six weeks, who is raging against the dying of the light so fiercely that Dylan Thomas would be proud of her, who as far as one can gather is full of beans and never complains. The number of families who have difficult 75-year-old relatives must wonder what on earth Nell and her husband are complaining about. They should be so lucky to have a mother-in-law who wants to come for walks rather than one who manipulatively wails at being left alone, who throws guilt trips, who refuses to go into a home but is incapable of living on her own.

It might help if Nell and her husband were to imagine her as a disabled young person rather than a disabled older one. Then, Nell would probably see as her as courageous and gutsy as all those people who take part in the Olympics for the Disabled. Nell would, as I do, admire her, rather being fed up with her. By taking her for walks (though I don't see why they have to be that strenuous) Nell and her husband are giving her a chance of life which can't be beaten. Perhaps she knows she's a pain in the neck on walks, but is deeply grateful because, so far, Nell and her husband haven't complained. Perhaps, she is thinking, they haven't really noticed that she doesn't get over those stiles with the amazing alacrity she once displayed.

Maybe, too, she's keen to be with her son every minute of the time of his all-too-brief visits to the country. Does he ring up frequently in between? If he made more contact from home with cards and calls, perhaps she wouldn't feel so desperate to be in on every little thing when he does finally come. Once every six weeks is better than nothing, but, who knows, perhaps she really does live for those weekends and needs to get every scrap of companionship and enjoyment out of them.

Your husband will have time for doing runs, 36-hour walks, even acrobatics on the Devon moors when his mother is dead. Or perhaps he could do his hikes from home on another weekend. Until then, a hip replacement might be encouraged (and paid for if there's a problem) to give her the extra lease of life that she craves - and deserves.

What readers say

Enjoying the outdoors at your own pace

I am a 78-year-old arthritic who still loves walking. I know I am too slow for keen walkers, but I do like getting out in the countryside, and now I forbid myself to go there alone for fear of falling. The best solution is for us all to go out in the car, to a nice hill (possibly have a picnic), start out a very little way together and then, knowing where they are going, I do the walk by proxy, potter a little without them, enjoy imagining them enjoying themselves over the hill (I know they will pick me up if I fall) and, having been given the keys to go back to the car, I can read or sketch.

Mrs Gillian

Sturminster Newton, Dorset

Your mother-in-law is an afterthought

You two sound like the most insensitive, selfish rotters, but you mother- in-law obviously enjoys your company to the extent that she pushes herself to the physical limit to be with you. Has it ever occurred to you to go to Devon with the express purpose of seeing her, rather than as a pretext for walking?

Once every six weeks is hardly lavishing attention on the old lady. It may seem bizarre to you, but most people might consider their mother more important than coastlines. Why should she quietly slip into dotage, nodding by the fire to meet your (stereotypical) prerequisites for exemplary elderly behaviour? Try to locate your heartbeat and next time you visit, include her in activities you can all enjoy. Devon will be around for a lot longer than you mother-in-law.

Ruth Quinn

Cricklewood

A selfless attitude has its rewards

Both of us get irritated by my disabled, elderly mother at times but we still think she is marvellous. We think that since she has travelled 6,000 miles to see us, the least we can do would be to give her company which she needs. In return every time she goes back home she thanks both of us profusely for what we have done for her and maintains that her daughter-in-law is the daughter she never had.

Parents are a living link with the past. Once they are dead and gone there is a vacuum which can never ever be filled. Spending time with old parents is always a mix of pleasure, boredom and irritation. And though at times irritation is greater than pleasure, we feel that "happiness does not come in what we like to do but in liking what we have to do", with the result that every year we look forward to her return.

I do not think that walking at a slow pace with your mother-in-law or even foregoing a Saturday afternoon walk to sit with her having tea once in six weeks is a big sacrifice on your part. After all, she believes that both of you have come to see her and not to appreciate the Devon countryside.

Dr A M Gordhandas & Mrs P Gordhandas

Scunthorpe

Coming to terms with ageing

So your husband refuses to pace his life to suit his mother, even though it is only one weekend every six weeks? This does sound incredibly priggish, but I wonder if it hides an inability to come to terms with his mother ageing, something that she, too, cannot acknowledge?

Has it occurred to either of you to take a walk in the morning, perhaps giving mum-in-law her breakfast in bed and allowing her time to get her poor old joints going?

Anne Stuart

Sandown, Isle of Wight

Go for a practical solution

If I were you, I should drive down to Devon on Friday night and put up in a B & B. On Saturday, you and your husband would then be free to go walking on your own, arriving (not too dishevelled) at your mother-in- law's in time for tea. Sunday's walk could then be taken at her pace.

Sheila Ormell

Blackheath

Next week's problem: children are unwelcome at a wedding

Dear Virginia,

Our son and his fiancee have planned their wedding for a year and the bride's mother encouraged us to give advance news to our prospective guests. These were old family members, some living abroad and aged from mid-eighties to two families with children. The list was given to the bride's mother months before the wedding day and intricate arrangements for travel began. Imagine our dismay when we learned, only weeks before the wedding, that children were not invited. Neither my husband nor I had ever heard of such a thing. Is the practice of excluding children from weddings widespread and is there anything we can do?

Yours sincerely, Anita

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293-2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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