“But it is so frustrating to see her almost dying every day with hard work, mental stress, apathy…”

Sharing an email.

Do you think it’s possible to help someone who does not think (maybe) they need help?

Dear IHM,

I am curious to know what to do you think of this  story of an aunty I know quite well , really like and admire. And I am always confused about what to feel about her.

Here is why:

Aunty is a very bright woman. An intelligent person who can talk from Syrian war to the real reason for hike in onion prices. She is golden hearted in true sense to everyone, without a thought to class/ caste/ gender/ relation. She is very progressive as far as her son and his wife’s life choices are concerned. I have rarely seen anyone who is so supportive of modern values in next generation as she is.

She married an engineer when she was just 19 years old. It was a love marriage. Her husband grew in leaps and bounds in his career. Aunty has always been very domestic minded and submissive natured person: not only towards the husband, but towards everyone. The family moved from city to city due to the nature of uncle’s job. He earned well, and they had a lot of facilities ( rare at that time). Aunty looked after home and the ageing parents + siblings of both of them. Uncle was a rarity then because he supported her family also, which used to be a taboo 35-40 years ago.

It is a common knowledge that she is not a very good ‘manager’, works slightly slow since she is very fussy about cleaning etc., she is reluctant to delegate duties to domestic help and is way too submissive to disipline her children or set routines at home. Similarly, she has a nurse like servile attitude towards older people/ relations/ guests. As a result, her life have been spent doing virtually domestic help kind of tasks and serving people, almost spoon-feeding people.
Her daughter had a major mental disorder which went virtually unchecked because aunty, who was home, was very busy and uncle used to travel for work. The daughter also lives with them and like mother, spends most of her time home. The daughter is spoon fed and treated with kid gloves, aunty refuses to leave her on her own for residential therapies, refuses to rationally deal with the disease. Her solution to everything is to serve the person to the T!
Uncle is a person who worries a lot: especially about his family and friends. He does that to men as well as women. He himself is overtly cautious and physically inactive person. He always discourged his wife from learning driving since the streets were unsafe, travelling on her own since it was unsafe, going out in the night even for male members was discouraged etc.etc. As a result, she was further dependent on him for movement and became more and more homebound as a result. Her son who was rebellious escaped this overprotectiveness by protests/ fights, but aunty and her daughter didn’t. They are very homely people.
Now, when she is 65, I see her not stepping out of home at all. Lack of excercise means health has suffered. She meekly agrees to everything anyone in the family says, although I know that she is smart enough to understand better options. The family members blindly depend on her and expect her to be there at their beck and call. She has spent too much time not taking decisions and now when Uncle’s health is suffering, when she is the one who is required to manage, she is unable to do so. I also think she is very tired to be able to take any ‘mental’ responsibility of managing.
I feel frustrated and angry with her for being so passive and so dormant. The family she spent her life serving, is falling away, be it money issues or health, since uncle has zero sense about spending, they haven’t saved much and the medical expenses are quite a lot since uncle is almost an hypochondriac.

 She has always allowed her husband to lead their lives: good or bad way. Now when he is unable to take rational decisions, she is allowing her own life to led almost by mad impulses and irrational decisions of her husband. She says whatever is in our destiny, will happen. But it is so frustrating to see her almost dying every day with hard work, mental stress, apathy due to the depressing environment at home. Her son who lives in a different city has tried multiple times to help his mother: by hiring full time help (but it is still aunty who works hard!!), by instructing family members to change their dependence ( but they don’t), by requesting that the daughter should go out and socialize etc. But aunty has no energy to try something new anymore.

As someone who really likes the aunty and someone who cares for well being of women around me, what do you suggest we should do to help?

thanks and best regards

20 thoughts on ““But it is so frustrating to see her almost dying every day with hard work, mental stress, apathy…”

  1. Not much you can do. If she takes pride in the fact that she is a load carrying donkey, there isn’t much you can do about it. I have aunts who were like this when their husbands were alive, then had to take charge when they died. Maybe that will be the case here. You can try telling her that she has options too, but honestly, at the age of 60, I don’t think she’ll listen. In India, people seem to think they need ‘taking care of’ once they are 50 and devote their time to bhajans.

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    • Please don’t think she is suffering, it is a different form of control, making everyone around you a dependent on you and establish yourself as indispensable. This is typical desi codependency trait another word will be martyr complex.
      All you can do is offer to take the daughter for a walk or some activity, if she lets you do that. Some people just love to gloat in misery.
      Peace,
      Desi Girl

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    • What a situation. She’s been this type of a person for nearly 70% of her life. There’s not much that can change when it comes to her personality. If you are not directly related to this family, there isn’t anything you can do directly. However, the son can take steps to have his sister committed to an appropriate institution so that care-giving doesn’t fall on his mother yet again.

      Do you have any other similar aged acquaintances that can perhaps befriend aunty and prompt her to open up and potentially participate in social activities? What kind of family members rely on her? The son needs to draw firm boundaries and ask them to please keep away from his elderly parents. Is admitting his parents to an elderly care home a viable option? I’ve noticed how elders tend to thrive when they are around others of their own age group and don’t have any mundane household responsibilities that have taken up a good chunk of their adult life.

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  2. I know one such sweet neighbour aunty.She fits the description in this post so much that I felt its the same person, until I read the part about the daughter.
    There is sadly nothing much that can be done.Women who are brainwashed to
    1.Sacrifice & Serve
    2.Depend on male family members
    3.Not take financial decisions
    are not going to try and Unlearn now.
    I feel sorry for the LW’s aunty.And the daughter.

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  3. oh god! much as i want to see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, i must admit that the son has already tried everything. you can just be there for her, and thats not a small thing.
    one small thing that you can do is to start asking her for advice on “manly” topics like finance. you mentioned that she analyses enough to think of the real reason for gold price increase. ask her for help on financial topics, and she might start reading up.

    all the best. you are trying something nice.

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  4. Dear LW,

    It is normal and natural to want to help your aunt. I run a support group for families of children with autism. Sometimes I meet families that are under a lot of strain and are falling apart. For me, it seems so simple – here are the stressors you need to remove from your life, here are the problems you need to prioritize right now, here are the first few steps you need to take to create sanity in your home, etc. There were times when I’ve been frustrated. “Why don’t they get it??” I would wonder. “Your child needs you right now, you need to get your act together!!” Over time, I’ve realized that it’s not so simple.

    Each person has his/her own way of dealing with things. They react differently to the same situations. A situation that might prompt me or you stand up and take swift action might make someone else cower in fear, and someone else may hide behind denial.

    The best thing that you can do for your aunt is to understand that she is her own person with her own weaknesses. Accept her as she is. Be there for her, to talk to. She may open up to you, if you don’t judge her. If you listen without giving advice, she may be willing to change things or at least see things in a different light. Now, this requires a certain level of detachment, doesn’t it? The truth is you can’t be a great source of support to someone if you are fully invested in their problems. You have to stand NEXT to them, not take over their place (and their life, their problems) – a lesson I’ve learnt with some difficulty.

    Your aunt has to be willing to change things – changes can’t be forced through advice. Once she is able to see her own problems more clearly (with your help, your listening), she may be more ready to start finding her own solutions.

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  5. If there is a single learning from my life that I want to pass on to my kids it is this:

    Nip bullying in the bud. The more you let it be, the stronger it will get.

    If you nip it in the bud, the other party will recognise where to draw the line. The relationship may flower into something beautiful perhaps.

    But if you don’t, you are not helping anyone. Least of all yourself.

    Indian women are bullied ceaselessly. High time they stood up, and nip things in the bud.

    Sorry LW, not much gyaan to give in your particular case.

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  6. I’m not sure exactly how this could work, but don’t many families with disabled and elderly family members often set up a trust (in the US this type of trust is generally referred to as a “spendthrift trust”) for those family members. With a good trustee who invests the funds properly, the aunt and her daughter’s medical, food, long term nursing and therapy for the daughter and other necessary expenses could be cared for, without just letting the aunt and uncle spend money frivolously. I’m sure the son and DIL and any other concerned family members can speak with a bank or a lawyer to see how this could be set up. If the son and DIL are going to have the financial responsibility of taking care of their mother and disabled sister, it may be a smart solution that allows them to take care of their relatives while also ensuring that their money is invested properly and spent properly and for the right purposes. Perhaps you could suggest such a solution to the son and DIL.

    As much as I hear your frustration I doubt a 65 year old woman will drastically change her ways. Maybe encouraging her to take small steps toward independence will reduce your frustration and will lead to small improvements for your aunt. As an example, maybe encourage her to take a walk in the evenings with you or other friends and family. Do won’t result in a drastic change in her behavior, but maybe its a step in the right direction and may lead to other small steps that can add up over time..

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  7. Sometimes we just ave to be there and listen. No advice no lecture nothing. My neighbor who is elderly always does stuff for the others. Always. She takes great joy in that. Ever since I’ve known her she loves to make special stuff and send it over, ime an time consuming, long prep, enduring hardships. Her purpose in life is seva and caring, I tease her and call her the indian Florence aunty. Her family treats her like a doormat, yet she serves.
    I can’t o a thing, I listen, but her stuff I know she likes and have our cook make extra of some stuff she is great at and take t to her garmagaram right @her lunch, or else se will save it or her husband🙂 so listen and be there everyone has a right o lead their life as they see fit.

    She one day made me chalks by hand and her arthritic fingers were swollen. I couldn’t swallow even one. Felt so bad, but that’s the way she is. Never ever ate before her husband, but never once judged me for eating before mine. Truly open minded. Never once judged us for the way we were married and is my boys fav grandma🙂 so nothing we can do , we r just there for her, ply her with food and subtly help her rest.

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    • I agree Radha. Probably this aunty takes joy and pride in helping the people she loves.

      I think it is not too late for her to learn driving or domestic economy, in order to improve her life and life of others. But I think she would be only willing to learn new things if, as you say, nobody judges her or lectures her, and she is being taught with lovingkindness.

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  8. Ok she is logical and knows all onion price etc reasons …then she understands what u tell.OK.
    She wants the good girl tag and risks loosing the Adarsh Bhartiya Naari Image.Incase her decision is wrong then she does want the blame. you can see that by ignoring daughters condition..She is the educated cr*p .She loves playing Victim.She also enjoys your sympathy.There are many around me like that…

    My sister has done that many times ..saying main kya kar sakti hoon when i said this is affecting your dauggter..

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  9. first since she is ready intelligent and even reason onion price rise she very well understands what you are saying okay. she wants an image of a good girl. she enjoys the status of Aadarsh Bhartiya Naari. she likes being the victim that’s it. she fears that if any decision is taking by her and it is wrong she would be blamed for it and lose the good image. she is enjoying the sympathy by you and others .
    I have seen many people around me like that including my sister. my sister’s husband does certain things which can affect our daughter despite of that my sister says What can I do , I will only be called the bad one.
    you can see this example where she has ignored her daughters problem.

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  10. Children should be taught about rights and duties right from childhood. Only sacrifice and duties are glorified. Has anyone heard of rights being glorified?

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  11. The one thing that struck me very much about this e-mail is the extent to which your aunty is sweeping mental illness under the rug. You need to step up and let her know that this is not something that you can solve by being at her daughter’s every beck and call. This is something that needs professional help if it’s going to get anywhere. The other thing that struck me about this e-mail is the extent to which your uncle is letting her suffer through her health problems while being reckless with spending. This is something else you need to step up about, and take up with the uncle himself, because this is not just a question of domesticity, but her life. It can end very badly, and whose fault will that be?

    I feel like these are two situations where your aunty needs to quit being a doormat and stand up for herself. This is a question of life and death, to the point where I’m quite sure that if someone doesn’t slam the brakes, your aunty’s just going to keel over. She cannot possibly cope with the stress of doing everything while still enduring her health issues. Someone needs to cut her some slack, even if she won’t do it for herself.

    As for the rest of the email, my thoughts are quite long, so please bear with me.

    Both my grandmas share similar traits with this lady, although neither of them would stand to be told what to do by someone with as little sense as your uncle. Nevertheless, there is a running joke in my family that my grandma on my mother’s side could hire a servant, but all that would end up happening is that she would still do all the housework to the point where the servant could bring in her own dishes and my grandma would clean them without noticing. She is getting on in age, and her house is big, but she still does as much work as she can.

    Part of this very much has to do with how my grandmother was raised, and how she has led her life. For her, old habits die hard. She knows that she cannot cope with all the housework that she wants to be doing, but at the same time, to not do it would be to stop doing the things she’s been doing for decades.

    Same thing with my grandmother on my father’s side. Her mind is brilliant. There’s just no two ways about it. But for her, because of the environment she was raised in and how she has led her life, much of this brilliant mind goes towards doing the housework for the rest of us. However, her situation is quite different, as she was a widow and independence was a necessity for her.

    Still though, sometimes I wonder what would have happened if both of my grandmothers had gone on to do something different with their lives. I wouldn’t argue that their lives haven’t been worthwhile–they definitely would disagree with me on that front. But do they sometimes wish that they could have lived their lives differently? Yes. Had their lives gone a bit differently, they probably would have picked something else, and been brilliant at that too.

    However, this does not necessarily mean that their lives as they have lived it was completely worthless either. And I suppose this is the case for your aunty as well. We see their potential and feel frustrated because according to us, they’ve wasted their lives away. But the important thing to realize is that even for the women in the generations preceding us, even as their choices were revoked, they still found ways to imbue their life with meaning. They way they did it is probably not the way that you and I would create meaning for ourselves. Being domestic is not in my blood at all, and I want to make my contributions a different way. But for them, given their circumstances, they did the best they could and in their own ways, defeated the odds and carved out their own lives.

    My mom’s mother because the unofficial town guidance counselor. She did not go to university, but she never stopped learning. Her brilliance at maths meant that my grandfather would usually refer school aged kids to her when they came to him for advice. She fought with her family to not just pass her classes, but excel in them, even when they told her to stop thinking about school and focus on the house. She married my grandfather and became a housewife, and yes, she’s a workhorse, but she’s nobody’s doormat.

    My dad’s mother used her ingenuity to become a teacher. She was the person who taught me how to add fractions together. She’s still the lady we all go to when we need advice about how to deal with the idiots of the world. She doesn’t speak much English, and she’s not very tall, but when she walks down the street, she commands a type of respect that very few people in this world can.

    I did feel sorry and frustrated for both of their lives and circumstances. I used to talk at length about how they ought to have stood up for themselves and gone to university. But they usually just smile at me and say that no, they didn’t get to go, but does that mean that they’re any less intelligent, any less capable? Does this mean that they can’t kick my ass? (No.) So I stopped feeling sorry and started to notice how, even with the life that was perhaps forced upon them, they made it their own.

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    • I wish I had the same wisdom and strength as your grandmothers. Actually I think you need to work on it every single day, to achieve such awesomeness. My great-grandmother, who worked as a maid before her marriage, was also a great lady – much wiser than her children (boys and girl) who went to university.

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  12. On other note, this reminds me of some of my relatives – people who are not bad, not evil, not mean, who are capable of kindness and empathy, but don’t seem to have their priorities straight. Service without common sense is not very meaningful. Our first responsibility is to ensure our own personal health and emotional well being. Once we are happy, well adjusted, responsible adults, we are able to be there for our kids, be strong, nurturing parents to them, and help them grow and develop into independent adults. If we give up on ourselves, our dreams, our own happiness, we can’t be a source of support and strength to our children and spouses.

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  13. Pingback: An email: Is it okay to make someone give up something they love to do, because we want them around? | The Life and Times of an Indian Homemaker

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