At 90, my friend has 70 per cent hearing loss, macular degeneration and slowly deteriorating mobility. But she’s mentally sharp and furious at how her body is letting her down. She lives alone, supported by “useless” carers, and does nothing but complain about the state of the world and the fact that she has nothing to show for a life of duty and thrift. Her children refuse to take her into their homes – they escaped as soon as possible – and she is never satisfied with anything. How can she be helped?
Yours sincerely, Nell
Our natural instinct is, of course, to be kind and charitable towards the old. They can be lonely, anxious and, with all kinds of terrible physical ailments, often feel exceptionally vulnerable. It’s right that we should want to protect them.
But there are many old people in the same situation as your friend who bear their burden if not exactly cheerfully – that may be too much to ask and is probably due to some kind of genetic tendency to optimism rather than anything else – then at least with grim fortitude. And when someone does pop by to help, or shows concern, they’re pleased. And they show it.
After a phone call, they will say: “Thank you so much. These calls mean so much to me. You’ve made my day” – some polite, appreciative words that make you long to ring them again soon.
They are excessively polite and grateful for any help they can get, and can charm even busy carers into spending five minutes longer with them than they do with their other clients.
This woman hasn’t turned into a nightmare because she’s old and disabled, or because she suffers from Alzheimer’s (though, sadly, some people can change into monsters when their brains change, and their loved ones just have to be as kind and patient as possible, trying to remember the old personality, which occasionally pops through to remind them of the person they once were).
But from what you tell me, it sounds as though this woman was always a nightmare. She was a nightmare when she was young and fit. She was a nightmare when she was middle-aged. And her children couldn’t wait to leave home. It sounds as if you’re something of a saint to stick by her, frankly.
Dissatisfaction is her natural setting. It’s her comfort zone, and where she feels safest. She is used to railing against the world and trying and failing to set it to rights. In a perfect world, she would feel ill at ease and useless – she would have nowhere for her rage to go and would probably have a nervous breakdown.
If she is mentally alert, she has every means of working out how she could resolve her problems. You would be there to be her eyes and ears if she needed more information about better care homes or better facilities for people in her situation. Ask her what she would like and say that you will do everything to make it happen. Offer to take her to the doctor, and listen to his or her suggestions. Contact the local council and see if there is any help she could have and isn’t getting. But if nothing more is possible, then she has to come to terms with a ghastly situation and make the best of it. She won’t like hearing you say that, and it will probably be the end of your friendship, but honestly, without some positive input from her, there’s nothing else you can do. I know it sounds cruel, but if, when you’ve done everything possible, she’s still furious, what else can you do?
Get her some expert advice
It sounds as if this sad friend of yours needs a great deal more help than she is getting at the moment. Have you contacted the Royal National Institute for the Blind (rnib.org.uk)? It has shops with all kinds of aids for the visually impaired, which I’m sure could make a big difference to her. Talking books are a great solace. Similarly, the Royal Society for the Deaf could be a help (royaldeaf.org.uk)
I’m sure she could get some volunteers, too, to visit her and help make her life less stressful, and perhaps take some of the burden off you as well. You sound a very good friend, because people in this situation are very difficult to help. But I am sure her life could be made a bit more comfortable.
You’re already helping
I think it’s a credit to you that you have managed to stay friends with this woman. It doesn’t sound as though you get very much back in return in the way of gratitude, or even the feeling that you are making a difference to her life. And yet your worry is about how you can help her more. That’s admirably unselfish on your part. She may not have much that she can do any more, but she does have you, and by listening to her and caring about what happens to her, I reckon that you’re already helping her more than you know.
Let her complain
After all these decades, I doubt that your friend will suddenly discover the joys of spring. But perhaps she could get a little grim satisfaction from ringing radio talk shows to complain about anything and everything. There are now scores of them across national and local radio, all desperate to fill dead airspace.
Her hearing needn’t be an obstacle to this – there are all sorts of devices that can alleviate the problem – but if it is, she could still spend many angry hours writing to the newspapers. And if she is computer literate, a whole world of comment boards and chat rooms awaits her.
Next week's dilemma
My friend seems very vulnerable, always taking offence. If I don’t ring back within five minutes of her calling, she says I’m ignoring her, or I ring and find her crying, thinking that she’s done something wrong. If I’m really busy at work, I sometimes – rarely – have to put her off at the last minute. I’ve explained time and time again that I can’t be relied on, but then she won’t speak to me for weeks. Even if I change a date a week in advance, she makes a big fuss. Recently, I forgot to call after she’d had a minor hospital appointment, and never heard the end of it. Can I stop this, or should I just forget about her?
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