‘Can we survive this squeeze?’: how to cope when both your kids and your parents need help

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

When I was born, my grandmother was only 58. Her own parents were both dead, her mother having died in her 70s a few years earlier. I am 58 myself now, but my future grandchildren are still probably some years away. Two of my children are still living at home, with all the needs that entails, while my mother, a sprightly 83-year-old, can have every expectation of living into her next decade. But she will need me more as she ages, and my daughters are, I hope, going to want me to help with their offspring when the time comes. All this means life is likely to get a whole lot busier and more stressful as I get older.

Many of my friends are there already – last year, a Bank of Scotland survey found grandparents saved their children almost £4,000 per family – and I sense the frayed edges of lives being pulled in too many directions. How can we survive this squeeze? How do we stop ourselves being spread so thin that there’s nothing left of us, or for us, at a time when we hoped things would be getting easier, not tougher? I put your questions to the experts.

My 95-year-old mum lives independently, but finds it tough and won’t accept that she needs more help. What can my brother and I do to persuade her that she does?

Dr Pandora Wright, community geriatrician and president of the geriatrics and gerontology section of the Royal Society of Medicine: The number one rule here is: look for the least restrictive change for your mother. In other words, keep things as close as possible to how they are now, while getting her the extra support she needs. You don’t want to frighten her or make what you are doing seem like a threat. Unless she is unable to cope, involve her fully in what you are doing. Talk to her about getting a care assessment, also known as a needs assessment, via either her GP or social services. Make clear that this is about helping her and finding ways to keep her life how she wants it to be. Many GPs now offer social prescribing, which involves assigning a link worker to help find local solutions to her needs.

The other thing is, think ahead: what will happen if your mother can’t live alone? Ask what she would like, in those circumstances. It won’t be an easy conversation, but you otherwise risk being engulfed in a surprise crisis without knowing what she would want to happen.

I’m a 58-year-old woman who feels stretched to breaking point, pulled between the needs of my mother, 88, my daughter, 29, who has just had her first baby, and my teenage son who is going through a tough time. How can I stop feeling guilty that I’m not doing enough for them?

Laura Bennett, head of policy at the Carers Trust: What I want to know is: what support are you getting? You don’t seem to be finding time for yourself and we all need that. However important we are to however many family members, no one can pour from an empty cup. So you have to think about what would be helpful for you, in the first instance. Could you get more help for your mother via your local carers’ centre or Age UK? It might be support for you – a carers’ group you could belong to, for example – or help for your mum so you can get time for yourself. Could your daughter find someone else to help with the baby, to take the pressure off you a bit?

I can’t help thinking that your son is the person who needs you most. Psychological issues, especially in adolescence, can become ongoing problems – and also, he may be the one for whom it’s hardest to get help in any other way. Plus, it might be you he most needs. How about seeing if there is something you could do together – walking, perhaps, which creates lots of opportunities to talk?

With regards to feeling guilty, you may need to reframe how you think about all this. Think not about whether you are perfect, but whether you are what we term “good enough”. Instead of focusing on what you have not been able to achieve, buoy yourself up by making a list of what you have done for your family.

My children are 15 and 17, and always getting into scrapes, causing my wife and I a lot of stress. Meanwhile, my parents need us more. But at this age, should teenagers be our priority? Wouldn’t ignoring them be beneficial to building their independence, while allowing us to focus on our marriage and my parents?

Ragni Whitlock, clinical lead for family therapy, Shropshire and Telford Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services: Teens can be tricky. They disappear to their bedrooms for hours and don’t seem interested in their parents in any way. But you ignore them at your peril. It might look as though they couldn’t care less whether you’re there for them, but nothing could be further from the truth. Being around for them is all about giving them consistent boundaries, instilling them with confidence that you’re there for them, showing love and affection, and listening to them. If your children know you can be bothered to be there for them, especially if they are being awful, you will have a lot more influence with them. In fact, whatever they are going through, love and consistency from you will see them through. And for you and your wife, less worry about your kids will free you up psychologically to cope better with your parents and to enjoy being with them.

My father is in his late 80s. I live nearby and spend a lot of time helping him. My brother and sister live far away, hardly ever visit, and seem to criticise my contribution while doing nothing themselves. How can I point out that they are adding hugely to the stresses on me?

Laura Bennett: You are clearly doing an amazing job supporting your dad. The situation you describe is common, and tough on you. You need to tell your siblings how this feels, but also explore how they can do more. Living far away doesn’t mean they can’t help care for your dad. Maybe one of them could sort out his finances, if he needs help with that. Also, your siblings might be able to pay for taxis to get your dad to hospital appointments so you don’t always have to go. And perhaps they could have meals delivered for him sometimes. Another good way forward might be to organise a care assessment for him, and a carer’s assessment for you. Invite your siblings to attend the meetings to get them more involved.

I’m 42, with two children, aged six and eight. My mum, 67, looks after them after school twice a week, but has started to say it’s too much for her. The problem for me is that they love being with her, and her free childcare is the only way I can balance my books. What is the best way forward?

Ragni Whitlock: There are different sides to being a grandparent: one is about caring, another is about fun. The two can go together and often do. But if your mum is feeling the strain, the arrangement is in danger of becoming a burden, which will spoil it for everyone – for your mum, of course, but also the children, who might start worrying about her and falling into caring roles themselves. Keeping this arrangement going is jeopardising everything that matters about it, so see if you can be more creative with your childcare. Could someone else, maybe another family member, help your mum? Could she team up with any of her friends who are also grandparents caring for their grandchildren?

Related: ‘That first year was a crazy rollercoaster’: why a new mother turned a crisis into cartoons

I’m 48, recently divorced, in a high-pressure job, and help my daughter with my new grandson as well as helping my parents who are in their early 80s. I would love a new relationship, but how will I ever find time for dating?

Dr Sandra Wheatley, a social psychologist specialising in family life: You have to put yourself on the list of who matters here, because if you don’t, no one else will. The tendency in families is to think: Mum did it last time, so she’ll do it again. But there are no medals for martyrdom. You need to be honest with your daughter and your parents about your needs – maybe joking about it to make the point. Also, make sure they are doing all they can to support you. Your parents can provide emotional support, perhaps make meals and so on. Families are about everyone playing to their strengths and supporting where they can, while being aware that things change all the time.

My mum is in her late 80s and lives 100 miles from me and my partner. We would love her to move to sheltered accommodation near us so I can support her more when she needs it. But she is resisting and says she’s happy where she is. Is she being selfish or am I?

Dr Pandora Wright: You need a frank discussion with your mum and the question at its heart is this: what does she want? It’s not about dictating what you think will work best. Is there someone who could pop in to check your mum is doing OK, and get to her quickly if you are worried? I sense unspoken fears around this question and you need to tackle them head-on. If your mum is lonely, are there clubs she could join? Do you know her friends and, if not, could you meet them? Could you set up Zoom calls to keep in touch more easily? Things may change in future, but you can’t get someone to up sticks if they don’t want to.

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