Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: My elderly mum is driving me mad

A reader's 90-year-old mother rings day and night and visits everyday. Is she selfish to want some time to herself?

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

My mother is 90 and lives nearby and she’s driving me mad. She refuses to have a carer and rings me day and night insisting on my coming over to make her a cup of coffee or find her spectacles. I make her lunch every day and she comes over every afternoon but it’s still not enough. I have a granddaughter to look after and my husband’s ill. I also have to earn a living somehow. I feel at the end of my tether. I’m starting to hate her. But if I put my foot down she gets furious and tearful. What can I do? My brother won’t have anything to do with her.

Yours sincerely,


Virginia says...

As I’ve often said, it takes two to create a bullying situation. One to do the bullying, the other to comply. So a bully must be stood up to.

Now, firstly I know it’s extremely difficult to stand up to a mother, simply because she’s your mother and when you see her some part of you is still reduced to a child-like state. Remember Bertie Wooster, who must have been at least 25, who could be reduced to pulp simply by a glare from an aunt?

The other reason it’s hard is because she’s old. Rightly, we’ve been brought up to be deferential to the old, but some old people take far too much advantage of this natural decency. At a bus queue you’ll often find a perfectly able, furious old stick-wielder shoving everyone out of the way to bully her way onto  the bus.

But bullying understands no other language than bullying. So you’ve got to dish out the same to them. It’s sickening, I know, to behave out of character just to make a bully respect you, but that’s how human nature works.

Personally I’d use the “sick note” tack. “I’ve been to my doctor, and he says I’m about to have a nervous breakdown with the stress I’m under,” you say. “I have to cut down on everything. So we’ve come up with a plan. I ring you every day at a certain time, and you come over for one day a week. The rest of the time you have to look after yourself except in real emergencies. He’s arranged for a carer to come and help you on all the other days, and there’s an end of it. Either you accept this, or I’ll drop dead of stress and it’ll all be your fault.” (If you do see your doctor, he or she will probably tell you this anyway so it won’t be lying.)

If the idea of standing up to her still terrifies you, get your husband to do the dirty work. Because of her generation and because she’s not related to him, she may listen meekly to a son-in-law, while shouting down a daughter.

And how dare she refuse a carer? Of course I can understand she may well not fancy having a stranger coming into her house, but after a while they won’t be a stranger. It’s like someone refusing a walking frame and, instead, expecting their relatives to carry them around everywhere.

If it gives you courage, before you go, have a stiff drink, or chuck a pill down your throat, whichever you prefer, march in and stand up to her. But do it. It’ll be better all round for everyone in the end.

Readers say...

Get help now

Annie’s mother is lonely and she wants to spend time with Annie, but she is not seeing things from Annie’s point of view. Annie does a lot for her mother and it is too much to expect her to continue single-handed. She could make enquiries about finding a carer for her mother from agencies such as Carers’ Support and then meet some carers and tell them about her mother’s resistance to having a carer at home. Then she could say to her mother that she would like to introduce her to someone, “a very nice lady”, who can come and help her as well as Annie. The carer could be paid from Attendance Allowance, which it sounds like her mother should be receiving. The carer and Annie would then share the care. The relationship between Annie and her mother would then improve a lot.

Janette, by email

Tell her you’re ill

Your mum will live to be 100. It is the indomitable ones who do. You probably won’t – with all the strain you are suffering. Tell her you are too ill to continue. Speak on the telephone but don’t go belting over to her house. Arrange for a carer for her, whether she wants one or not. It sounds as if your brother has the right idea.

June, by email


Next week’s  dilemma

Dear Virginia,

 My sister married two years ago to a man who’s turned out to be really useless. They have a two-year-old daughter, whom he doesn’t seem to care for, and they recently separated, though they’re living in the same house. My sister works full-time and I’ve been co-opted to do a great deal of childcare. I’m very fond of my niece and she sees me like another mother, but should I continue to play such a role in her life? I feel if I go on caring for her, they’ll never get a chance to sort things out – him to move out, have regular access, my sister to get proper childcare and so on. What do you think? 

Yours sincerely,


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