Too close for comfort

Too close for comfort

Don’t hesitate to let loved ones know a little distance is often healthy 

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 04/24/2014

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Dear Patti,
I’m 81 and recently had a stroke which has caused me to lose some muscle strength and experience some difficulty with mobility. I’m still in fairly good health and, although it takes me a little while, I get around pretty good using a cane. My granddaughter, Amanda, and her family are the only blood relations I have left and they mean the world to me. Amanda has been very worried about me since my health incident. Since I have a very large house, I asked her and her family to move into it while my around-the-clock caretaker, Claudia, and I would take the guest house. I loved the idea of them living separately yet close by in case I needed them but Amanda and her husband couldn’t bear to have me leave my beautiful home. They insisted I live with them and their three children and put Claudia by herself in the guest house.     

I’ve tried it for the past three months but I’m ashamed to admit it’s too draining for me to live with them all the time. My doctor thinks I’ve been depressed and very low since they moved in and that it’s affecting my physical health. I don’t mean to be unappreciative of their desire to be close to me but it’s just that I’ve lived alone for a long time and am used to my personal space and freedom. I’ve been looking forward to babysitting the great grandchildren with Claudia but they’re such high energy that I feel exhausted. Amanda always wants me to sit at family meals but I prefer to quietly eat a little bit whenever I please. She also wants me to attend church with them but I’d rather sit in my garden, read the bible, and commune with God, alone, in nature.

I don’t want to hurt Amanda’s feelings and am sensitive to the rejection she felt by her parents when she was growing up. She has worked very hard arranging the house so we could live together comfortably, and I have friends who would give anything to have such a loving family. Instead, I feel like a broken, tired old woman that can’t keep up and is being too picky and hard to please.

— Dorothy

Dear Dorothy,
Trust your instincts. You’ve known from the beginning what living arrangement was best for you and there is nothing wrong with wanting control over your own environment. I know it may be difficult but you owe it to yourself and Amanda to be honest. Explain your dilemma — that you’re thrilled to have your family living so close by but that, at least for now, you need a setting that accommodates your current limitations/physical disabilities. Let her know you want the freedom to choose whether you want social interaction at particular times or prefer quiet and restful solitude. 

You’re obviously a loving woman. If you hadn’t been so kind to Amanda in the past, she wouldn’t want to constantly include you in family activities. You don’t sound unappreciative at all, just trying instead to please others — to your detriment — and ignoring your intuition concerning what your needs are. Nor is it unusual to feel happiness and love in your heart for your family and yet simultaneously feel drained by them. It’s clear how much they mean to you but to deny creating an environment that supports your mental and physical health can lead to severe depression. It’s important to face your feelings without judgment and to interact with your family in a way that respects your circumstances.

I highly recommend finding a professional psychotherapist that you trust and who is trained in dealing with depression and problems concerning aging. Maybe you do feel broken and tired after a stroke. So what’s wrong with that? The demands of your physical problems are taxing and even good changes such as your family moving onto the property is stressful for awhile. Requesting a physical environment that’s not only comfortable but supports your sense of autonomy and privacy as much as possible is appropriate and neither unreasonable nor ungrateful. You and Amanda are lucky to have one another during this stressful — but promising — time. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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