Dilemmas

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THIS WEEK'S DILEMMA

Since leaving home, Jean has never lived close to her parents but for 30 years has had them on one long, stressful holiday each year, as well as bank holidays. Now that they're 80, ailing and fussy, she says she's being made to feel guilty by her sister, who lives next door to them, because she can't offer daily help. Jean feels she does enough as it is. Or does she?

Unless you've looked after ailing elderly people on a day-to-day basis, even if you do have a bolt-hole to return to each evening, you really can't appreciate how stressful it can be. There are pillows to be plumped, spilt drinks to mop up, anxieties to be dispelled, prescriptions to be cashed. Even if you have, like Jean's sister, a separate home to relax in each night, caring for tetchy old people can be every bit as exhausting as looking after two-year-olds.

But similarly, until you've had elderly parents to stay for 24 hours a day for a fortnight now and again, you also can't quite understand how stressful that can be, either. You are on call every hour of every day, the parents may feel even more fidgety and disoriented than usual in a strange house, and their anxiety about having their routine disturbed may well rub off on you, making a long holiday quite an excruciating experience.

It sounds to me as if neither Jean nor her sister quite understands exactly how much the other sacrifices for their parents, and each feels resentful that the other is having the easier time.

Jean's sister is trying to make Jean feel guilty. But if she genuinely feels she is pulling her weight parent-wise, then why does she feel guilty? No one can make you feel guilty if you really don't have anything to feel guilty about. For instance, if someone tried to make me feel guilty for physically punishing my son when he was small I couldn't ever feel guilty because I know 100 per cent that the charge isn't true. If someone accused me of being a bad mother, on the other hand, I might feel guilty, but only because the accusation would echo my own anxieties about not being perfect enough. So if Jean feels guilty it's only really because at some level she worries that perhaps she has not done quite enough for her parents.

If Jean truly does not feel guilty, her next step is to stop her sister even trying to make her feel so. One reason why her sister accuses her of not pulling her weight is almost certainly because she doesn't feel appreciated. Were Jean to ring up once a week and ask how the parents were, ceaselessly praise her sister for her marvellous work, say that she doesn't know how she'd do without her, grovel with thanks, empathise with the stresses and listen to the understandable moans, then I don't think the sister would need to try to slap a guilt-trip on her.

My suggestions to Jean, therefore, would be two-fold. One would be to reduce the accusations by being less defensive of her own position and more appreciative of her sister's. And secondly, to have her parents for another long holiday each year to stop her own guilt feelings as well, if she has any. It is all very well for her to say that her sister doesn't understand how ghastly it is having them for such long stretches but a slowly dripping tap is often more agonisingly painful than a flash flood, and Jean should remember that although her sister has no long periods of care, she also has no long periods of relief either.

My father used to say that if each partner in a marriage felt they were doing 75 per cent of the work then probably each was just about pulling their weight. Jean and her sister feel they are putting more into their parents' care than the other. So they have probably got it about right.

READERS' RESPONSES

I was the one left living close to my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease; my sister moved 200 miles away and had her to stay for a fortnight each year. I had 50 weeks of the year being on call, day in, day out, and sometimes in the middle of the night; my sister was at screaming point by the end of her two-week stint each year. We both got hooked into a game of "I'm worse off than you."

I now recognise that I regularly resented, and at times hated, my mother. But maybe the guilt associated with those feelings was too difficult to admit, so I had to make my sister feel guilty instead. We fell out many times and I sometimes wondered if we could ever be close again. But we still cried in each other's arms at our mother's funereal.

With hindsight, I can see how things might have been different. If only we had been able to sit down together, share our feelings of guilt and, rather than resenting what the other couldn't do, clarify what each of us was able and willing to do; to be clear about our own and each other's limits, and if there were still gaps in my mother's care, seek help from outsiders. I know I soldiered on for far too long before asking for help, and my "martyrdom" fed my resentment towards my sister.

Mary M Webb

Tewkesbury

Jean will never be able to satisfy her parents totally unless she moves near them and competes with her sister over providing daily care and attention. In their more reasonable moments, her parents must realise that her time must be divided between them and her own husband and family, for whom such a move might not be possible or practicable. Jean should brace herself for a busy few years when she tries to give her sister "respite" days and weekends, without neglecting her own husband and children. She should allow her sister to get away for holidays or short breaks with her own friends. And Jean should telephone her parents often in between visits, and show how much she cares.

She should carry on taking her parents on holidays as long as they (and she) are able to enjoy them. If they continue to criticise her, she can explain kindly but firmly that her own family needs her love and care as well. She should always make it clear how much she loves her parents, and try to make allowances for their anxiety and insecurity.

Felicity Scott

Bedford

What do Jean's parents want? Elderly people's needs are not always discussed with them and can be completely misinterpreted. If she talks to them, she could discover that they are really OK. If they are just "fussy" as opposed to truly dependent, her sister might be persuaded to go awol on occasions and just leave them to fuss. Forget guilt, just be practical. Perhaps Jean's sister needs a fortnight with her!

Sadie M

Southsea

Jean and her sister need to get together, not to engage in mutual recrimination, but to agree the extent to which they will each, in their different circumstances, take responsibility for their parents' care. Each needs to define what she is prepared to do - and what she is not prepared to do - and then together work out the gaps that are to be filled when neither of them is available (perhaps involving paid carers, social services, or friendly neighbours). It is a case of laying down boundaries - and communicating them to their parents - so that neither Jean nor her sister feels that the demands on them are limitless. I think they will find this constructive approach much more fruitful than assigning blame.

Hilary Young,

Nottingham

Being the daughter next door may be the role that deservedly earns the shiniest halo, but it is the not living close that actually allows Jean to make a particularly positive contribution to the well being of her parents. She is the "exciting" daughter, the fresh face they can look forward to seeing. They may not have thought of that, but they do need that too.

Billie Wolf

Wiltshire

NEXT WEEK'S DILEMMA

Dear Virginia,

At 40, I simply cannot sleep. Sometimes I get off very easily but wake tossing and turning at about three in the morning, unable to get back to sleep until five or so. Sometimes I just can't sleep at all. I feel exhausted all day, but when I put my head on the pillow sleep just won't come. Anything keeps me awake, from my wife's breathing to the dawn chorus. Sometimes I feel the silence keeps me awake. My restless insomnia is starting to wake my wife, too, who is extremely irritated that I won't try sleeping pills. I am getting quite neurotic about it all, and start to dread the evenings because I have to face the nightly tussle which I know may lead to rows. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Yours sincerely, David

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate.

Please send any relevant 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 that you would like to share, let me know.

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