Virginia Dilemmas Ironside’s: How can I help my mother get her life back?

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Dear Virginia, How can I help my mother?

My father died four years ago, and she refuses to look for anyone new, saying no one can replace him. She's only in her fifties, but won't consider training for a career. She has sold her flat and now rents, has no pension, and I am desperately concerned about her future. She seems happy enough, but does nothing all day. I'm 34, single and work as a tour guide, and every time I leave the country I'm sick with worry. Yours sincerely, Elsa

I know it's easy to say, but it's a great mistake to do someone else's worrying for them. It means they don't have to worry themselves. Your mum is living a carefree life, pottering about, and if ever she has a twinge of anxiety, she checks herself and says: "Oh, no, I don't have to worry about that. Elsa's doing that for me!"

By making a decision not to worry, you will actually be heaving the responsibility to do so on to your mother. And, who knows, with the burden of responsibility for herself suddenly switched to her shoulders, she might do something about it.

Of course, you'd be happier if she found someone else. But you try finding someone else when you're a woman in your fifties. Not only may she not actually want to find someone else, but even if she did want to, it's not that easy. You usually have to settle for damaged goods, someone pretty torn around the edges or someone like a chipped plate – valuable when intact but, with the crack running through it, worth no more than a few pence. Thank your lucky stars that she's at least happy, and not ringing you up every day wailing that she's become a boiling pot of need and is desperate for a man.

So, she doesn't have a job. How on earth does she live now, then? On capital, or on interest? If it's interest, she may be able to stagger on like that for quite a long time. If it's capital, one day it will run out, by which time she'll be eligible for a state pension. No, not much fun, but her rent would probably be paid for by social services, and perhaps she doesn't have expensive tastes. I had an elderly relative who appeared to live on air, but she had free sheltered housing in Notting Hill Gate, didn't eat a lot, shopped for the prettiest of clothes in charity shops, used her free luncheon clubs and day centres as if they were her own personal clubs, somehow managed to keep a dog and a budgie, and always had a glass of sherry and a fag at the ready, all on a state pension.

But if money is what bothers you, find out what exactly she might be eligible for when she reaches 60, by ringing up Age Concern. There's often a scrap more that you're entitled to than you think, depending on your circumstances.

Imagine if your mother were rolling in money but suicidally depressed. That would be far harder to cope with. Your mum's happy. Don't worry about her until the time comes – and who knows, you or her, God forbid, could be run over by a bus before you have to make any kind of decision about her future.

I wonder if you're not just worrying generally, and are pinning your anxieties on your mother. In other words, if your mother became a dynamic career woman and found Mr Right, would you be worrying about something else? Is it actually your future you're worried about, your lack of a man or a long-term future? I don't often recommend people to go to therapists, but if you could agree a short course with one who was kind and understanding, it might help you in the long term.



Readers say...



Be more patient

I'm so sorry you lost your father. The death of a parent is a blow from which few people recover quickly. Your seeming impatience at your mother's inability to move on seems to me to be an unwillingness to confront your own feelings, particularly about the gap left in your lives. Do you want her to replace your dad with "anyone new" to blank out bad memories? Was he an unkind father? Did he have affairs? Don't hasten your mother into a job or relationship just because it is unfamiliar to you for people to do nothing. You have managed your grief by activity, your mother hers by inactivity. Whatever his faults, she married him because she loved him. Whatever you think of their relationship, you don't "replace" someone just because it suits you. Talk to each other.

Name and address withheld

Is she depressed?

I may be wrong, but I get the impression you're judging your mother by your own standards. You obviously prefer a jetsetting lifestyle and an active life, but your mother seems to prefer a more sedate pace of life. You say she seems happy enough, and perhaps she is. On the other hand, she could be suffering from depression or lack of confidence.

If she has friends, speak to them and ask their opinions. If your mother is depressed, there will be signs; she may no longer take pride in her appearance, she may have lost interest in her home, etc. If this is the case, you must persuade her to visit her GP, preferably going with her.

If lack of confidence is the issue, persuading her to take one step towards something new would help. It's quite daunting to start doing things on your own when you have always been part of a couple, but if she can be encouraged to make a small effort towards trying something she would enjoy, it may be the boost she needs. Offer to go with her to attend a club for the first time. Check at the library to see what is on offer. You could take her shopping and treat her to a new outfit and hairdo.

But it may be that she's happy the way things are. If so, nothing you can do will make a difference. You must let your mother live her life as she chooses and get on with your own.

Claire Jones

Leicester

Back off

The "feel" of your letter made me believe that you are inadvertently trying to "mother" your mother. If this is the case, she may bitterly resent such interference. Also, have you been able to have an open, honest and non-judgemental (on your part) talk with her about the loss of your father, her partner, and any hopes and fears for the future for herself?

If your mother has not developed any physical or psychological/psychiatric illness to cloud her judgement, then her finances are her affair, not yours. You do not say whether she was left financially secure by your father or has money in her own right. She may feel she needs the support of an appropriate qualified independent person to help her with her finances, and this should not be you.

I suggest you back off and quietly support her to find her own way, free from any pressures from you.

Elisabeth

Manchester

It's not about you

It all seems to be about you; what you want for your mother, your worry. Your mother is in her fifties, so I imagine she knows her own mind and doesn't need you to do her thinking for her. You say she seems happy enough. Well then, leave her be. Why has she got to live her life as you want her to? Learn to live with your worries; they're your problem, not hers.

Andrea Clyndes

Halifax, West Yorkshire

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