Dear Virginia,

I seem to be trapped in a kind of sandwich of care. My parents are both over 80 years old and are starting to need my help constantly, often ringing me up three times a day and needing me to visit daily, while my children are aged eight, 10 and 13. They also need me. My husband complains he never sees me, and sometimes I think I'm going mad. How do others cope in this situation?

Yours sincerely, Valerie

You're not the only one trapped in this situation. It's a well-known syndrome and entirely new, since in the past the parents of most people your age would be pushing up the daisies by now. Indeed, your dilemma is a very good argument for old people not staying too long at the party – and I'm speaking as one who is already starting to look for her coat and handbag, and if not exactly ringing for the taxi, is certainly finding out the number.

Which of this needy group is most important, most deserving of your priorities? At the risk of sounding like a Me-Generation fan, which I'm not, I have to say that it is you, but not for the reasons you expect. It's because everything will work much more smoothly if you are fit, well and relaxed. Next on the list are your children, who must take priority over your parents and husband because what you do for them now may well have an effect on them all through their lives. Finally, your husband and family will just have to scrabble around at the bottom of the pile.

If I were you, I would try to organise some kind of care for your parents. If you ring Age Concern you'll find out what's available for them, and don't hesitate to use every offer of help quite mercilessly. Maybe it would be best for them to go into a care-home together. Find out now what's available and get your husband to take your parents round various local facilities. If he thinks he'll get to see more of you, I bet he'll be all too happy to buckle down and do the research.

Next, I would take your husband into your confidence – something you clearly have not already done. Ask his advice about how you can organise your life to make a bit more free time, not only for yourself but for him. Everyone loves to feel needed and I suspect that you're one of these people, like most women, who think that it's only you who can do the organising for each generation. You have to be prepared to relinquish a bit of control here. Your husband will be grateful to be considered a partner in this ghastly task.

Get everyone helping each other. Get your parents to baby-sit while you go out with your husband, and get your children to go round to their grandparents when they want help with their homework.

If you find that you just can't cope, try going away for a fortnight on your own and see what happens. When you get back you will be astonished to find that, although I'm sure you'll be sorely missed, you are not actually indispensable. Everyone will have discovered new ways of coping. They may not be the ways you like, but life will go on without you, and that realisation may make that Atlas-like burden you're carrying around with you now a little lighter.

Finally, get your doctor on your side. If you say you need a break no one may listen. But if your doctor endorses it, you'll be amazed at how people suddenly jump to attention.

You seem to be taking on a family problem all by yourself. But a family problem should be solved by the family, not just one member.

Readers say...

Get them to muck in

Instead of complaining about not seeing you, why doesn't your husband offer to help out with your parents? Or even the kids? You can also try and organise a home help for your parents once or twice a week to give you a bit of break. Your kids can help out too. The older child could do a bit of shopping and the younger two can help out around the house, or even sit and chat with your parents. They would most likely enjoy the company. If everyone mucks in, it's less work and you'll also be able to spend time as a family.

Solange Thomas

Hammersmith, London

Make a schedule

You are not alone. Since my mother died my 84-year-old father has become completely dependant on my support. When I was falling apart trying to spread myself too thinly between teenage children, my husband, work and my father, my GP gave me some advice that I've managed to put into practice.

Decide how much of your time you can devote to them and stick to it. Tell them that you can see them, say two mornings a week. Then when you do see them, make the best possible use of that time, whether it is changing light bulbs, taking them shopping and so on, but also build in some time when you sit and chat by sitting down to a nice lunch (bring it with you; buy it ready made) with them. By having a fixed time that you dedicate to them, you will feel less stressed and less resentful about how much of your time they will take up and all your relationships will be less strained. You may even start to enjoy their company, which you have probably forgotten how to do.

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Bring in extra help

I don't know if you have any siblings, but, if so, please discuss the situation with them so that they can hopefully do their bit. Sometimes, one child in the family assumes the role of carer, and the others happily let them get on with it. Of course you want to help your parents out, but your family and health must come first. Try to enlist local authority/care associations' help. My mother has an excellent cleaner from Age Concern, who police-check their staff and charge very reasonable rates.

If your parents try and resist this, stand firm, and stick to a reasonable schedule of visiting time that you control. You are not being a bad or neglectful daughter by simply acknowledging there is only so much of you to go around. After all, if you go under with the strain of it all, what will your dependents do then?

Christina Burton

by email

An older perspective

I do feel for you. My husband and I are in our eighties and although we've been lucky so far we will, in time, need more help than we give. It is time you lack, so I suggest you get all the responsible help you can pay for so that you and your husband can have a few days away together. If you can't manage this, perhaps you – or your husband – could suggest to your parents that some financial help from them now would be more useful than waiting until they were dead. Then they would have the pleasure of helping you out. You could also talk to them openly about the needs of everyone in the family and try to get a co-operative response, perhaps like not ringing you at weekends or after school when the children were home? A book that might help you is Can any Mother help me? edited by Jenna Bailey, which is the letters of women who wrote to each other for many years about the problems they encountered in their lives.


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