For some reason, people seem to think that elderly widows suddenly become helpless and unable to care for themselves after the death of their husbands.
Recently, a 74-year-old friend of mine lost her husband. Immediately, advice started pouring in from family members. “Mom, you’ve got to get rid of that pickup, and buy a smaller car.” They didn’t stop to think that she had driven the pickup for years. “Mom, you need to find a roommate to share expenses.” Mom, in this case, had a small but adequate income, lots of hobbies, and enjoyed being by herself. “Mom, you need to hire some help around the house.” They assumed that she couldn’t possibly mow the yard herself since Dad had always taken care of it before.
Three months later, even though she was managing quite well, they jumped at anything she said that might indicate she was not capable of living on her own. She once forgot where she had put the combination to a small bedroom safe, for example. She mentioned it to two of her daughters who immediately wondered, out loud, if maybe they should consider putting Mom in a home where she would be adequately cared for. No matter that Mom finally remembered giving the combination to a sister-in-law a couple of years before, and called to retrieve it.
Another time, she had difficulty in balancing her checkbook, and stopped by the bank to ask a clerk she had known for years to help her figure out what she had done wrong. Does that really sound like a woman ready for custodial care? But there are more families like hers than you might imagine.
Last week, one of the daughters called to invite me to an “intervention,” where she said the family intended to convince Mom that it was time for her to go into a retirement center. Never mind that Mom has good neighbors, and a home in a senior manufactured home park. Never mind that Mom is perfectly happy with her life just the way it is. The daughter said, “They,” meaning the family, would be more comfortable knowing that “Mom,” was being taken care of.
She seemed pretty determined they were going to transplant this poor lady into some kind of assisted living establishment with or without her co-operation. I declined the intervention invitation.
If a similar situation is occurring in your own family, here are some ideas that might help.
1. Avoid telling your widowed mother what she should do.
Becoming a widow doesn’t automatically make the average woman unable to care for herself. She should be treated as she has always been treated unless unusual physical or mental circumstances are involved.
Let her know you are there to help if she needs you, but don’t push your ideas on her. Most elderly women have already given considerable thought to how they would get along should their mate die first, and stepping in with a bunch of new ideas for them isn’t going to make life easier.
2. Give your widowed mother adequate time to grieve.
Sudden change is hard to accept for most people, and losing someone who has been a part of your life for many years is never easy.
Realize your mother may have days when she doesn’t feel like going shopping with you, or when she just wants to have a good cry. For a while after the death, she may seem a bit confused and even need medication to help relieve depression or stress. This is not a signal to pack her bags and deliver her to a nursing home.
3. Be patient with your widowed mother.
Remind yourself frequently that a person living alone after living with a spouse for many years is going to be lonely for a while. You will probably get phone calls at inconvenient times or that last much longer than you would like. Try to accommodate these interruptions to your schedule, at least for the first few months.
After that, tell her that it would be nice if she would call you once a week, say at 7 p.m. every Tuesday evening so you can catch up on how things are going with each other. If she calls more frequently, visit for a minute or two and then tell her you have to run, but you’ll see her when you stop by for your regular visit on Friday-or whatever day you make your weekly visit to her.
When she does call at the scheduled time, give her your full attention, and, no matter how many times she repeats the same story over again, listen and comment as though it was the very first time. A friend told me that no matter what she says to her daughter on the phone, the daughter interrupts and says, “Mom, you already told me that,” so she doesn’t call her any more at all.
4. Do whatever you can to help your mother remain in her own home.
My mother was able to stay in her own home until she died at 91. Even though we asked if she would like to move in with us, she always expressed her desire to remain in her own home. We respected that wish and did all we could to make sure she was able to do that by locating a handyman in the neighborhood that kept her yard in order and was available to fix small things that went wrong from time to time.
We also stopped by once a week to see that she was doing okay and, although she was a bit forgetful toward the end, she took great pride in showing us her latest garden produce, flowers, or sewing projects; all things she may have had to give up had she not remained in her own home.
Family members called her often, and we asked a close neighbor to call us if she hadn’t seen my mother for a day or two, or if she noticed anything unusual happening.
5. Watch for signs that your mother might need more help than you can provide.
Can she carry on a normal telephone conversation? Is her house reasonably clean when you visit? Does she keep herself clean and well-groomed? Is she able to handle her own finances? Does she drive, or have a way to shop for groceries and other necessities? Is she fixing decent meals for herself?
Even if your mother seems lacking in some of these areas, she may still be able to live alone with a little extra help. Perhaps a local high school girl could come in once a week and do the heavier cleaning. You or another relative may take her shopping on a regular basis, and help her with paying bills and writing letters.
If you notice more serious changes, it may be time for an evaluation from her physician.
Extreme swings in personality, frequent confusion, neglect in keeping herself clean, failure to eat properly, uncalled for anger, memory loss that interferes with daily living, physical problems, and paranoia are just a few things that may mean you need to take a closer look.
It is true that not every widowed mother, or father, will be able to, or should live alone, but please don’t push either of them prematurely into an assisted living situation unless it is absolutely necessary, or is their own preference. One way to make the decision is to ask yourself, “What would your parent do if it was his or her parent involved?” And take a cue from that.