Ask Amy: Stepmom’s shocking news reaches the campsite
Dear Amy: My dad and stepmom have been married for over 40 years.
My husband and I recently retired and moved nearby to be closer to them. We want to spend our summers camping. My father’s dementia prevents them from joining us (he is 91).
When I announced that we were going camping over this summer, my stepmom acted like I was abandoning her. But I call every day and talk to them.
My stepmom (age 86) recently met a man (also in his 80s) whose wife has dementia, and is in a nursing home.
When we talked the other day, she told me that when I got back home, she was going away for a week (or more) with this man. She wasn’t sure where they were going or how long they would be gone. I’m dumbfounded!
I wouldn’t have an issue watching my dad if she wanted to go out for an afternoon or evening. Dad is extremely attached to her. Her leaving him feels like abandonment.
He was a great husband to her throughout their long marriage. Now he needs her! I don’t know how to handle this. — Worried Daughter
Dear Worried: Your stepmother felt abandoned when you announced that you were leaving over the summer. It’s simple: She needs help, and you aren’t available.
When one elderly person is caring for another elderly person who is suffering with dementia, calling every day does not count as being particularly helpful, certainly if you live nearby.
You no doubt have been looking forward to your own retirement, envisioning freedom from the demands of your work life (and possibly other family obligations). But you don’t always get what you want when you want it. Surely your father didn’t envision his dementia. Your stepmother didn’t envision the overwhelming tasks of caregiving.
So yes, you did abandon your stepmother. Unfortunately, you don’t seem to connect your own impulses and behavior with hers: You both want to flee from an overwhelming situation.
My instinct is that your stepmother has made a shocking announcement in part to get your attention. I think you should react with equanimity. Do not attach to her desire to go away with another man. Do pay close attention to her desire to go away.
Tell her that you will stay with your dad for as long as she needs. Perhaps you could offer to “switch houses” with her for a week, where she stays in your house and you and your husband move home (she can visit during the day). Taking care of your father full time will give you some insight into what your stepmother has been experiencing. Express an interest in meeting her friend, and try to be open-minded until you have a clearer picture.
Dear Amy: I was brought up to not interrupt people. I am also an empathetic listener. I listen and ask questions. I congratulate and I comfort.
And I wait for a break in the conversation to bring up my own topic, only the break never comes.
Even when on the rare occasion that I am asked about something in my life, the microsecond that I pause to take a breath, the other person jumps in and away we go.
My friends are all bright and witty and I do enjoy listening to them, but I fantasize about saying, “But enough about you. Let’s talk about me,” but of course I won’t.
Any advice? — Perpetual Listener
Dear Listener: Quick-witted people can often run roughshod over conversations, but there is no need for you to be a martyr to your friends’ conversation style.
If you could train yourself to be a little more assertive, you might get more of what you want from these encounters.
When you want to speak, maintain eye contact. Hold your body straight, shoulders back, and lean forward a little bit. Put your hand up in the “pause” position. Maintain a positive physical attitude. Say, “Oops, wait a minute. I want to weigh in!” (Practice this at home...)
This is NOT interrupting. This is you participating and being actively engaged.
Dear Amy: Wow. You really called out “Frustrated!” She was actually jealous of her husband’s friendship with his former mother-in-law. Thank you for setting her straight.
My own ex mother-in-law and I stayed close until her death. She even insisted on meeting my (future) wife. Fortunately, my wife understood my attachment, and we both felt lucky to know “Mom.” — Grateful
Dear Grateful: I’ve received many very touching tributes to former in-laws.