When Family Care editor Laurie Hilsgen's Mum shifted to an assisted living apartment, her seven children hoped she would settle easily and make new friends. But chronic loneliness prompted a rethink, and feisty debate among the siblings. If their Mum was finding it hard to make friends, should they hire one to visit her each week?
Blood is thicker than water, but fresh blood has its place.
Our family learned this lesson when, following a nasty case of shingles, our 81 year old mother suddenly needed 24/7 care and had to leave her home of nearly 60 years.
She had often talked about shifting to a nearby assisted living apartment, but the opportunity to proactively make this choice was taken from her almost overnight. Although her transition to a monitored care environment was hasty, Mum did begin to enjoy her comfortable, modern apartment. She began to refer to her former home, which was empty and for sale in a sluggish economy, as ‘the old house’.
And all seven of my mother’s children heaved a sigh of relief that the endless maintenance costs and chores required at the old house were almost at an end.
We were glad, too, that Mum’s health was being monitored several times a day by nurses and support workers who dispensed her medications, checked her blood pressure, and arranged necessary medical appointments.
The professionals also carefully checked Mum’s cocktail of pain medications, on which she now relied to cope with nerve pain from the shingles, and which had caused falls and confusion at the old house. A factor in Mum’s entry to assisted living was taking too much or too little of this medication, with calamitous results.
Not alone, but lonely
But there was one problem with Mum’s new living arrangement. Mum has always been a fairly suspicious person who would go to extreme lengths to avoid having ‘strangers’ in the house. We all had a hand in organising repairs and maintenance at her modest home, which was showing its age.
From various corners of the globe, we arranged services to help Mum continue living at a three-level property that was fast becoming unsuitable for her needs. I recall organising garden maintenance with a neighbour, who lived just across the street from Mum, from thousands of kilometres away in New Zealand. She said she would accept this help, but only if Leon didn’t need to speak to her or come into the house.
We set up a home maintenance account and contributed to a ‘kitty’ to pay for the growing list of tasks Mum could no longer manage herself.
If a visit from a tradesman was needed, one of us had to be on hand, preferably my older brother, who lives in the same town. In fact, Mum preferred that my brother did all the repairs, even though years before he had sustained a serious injury falling out of one of her large trees, complete with running chainsaw, smashing every bone in his ankle.
It was an injury that cut short his working life and caused permanent numbness in his foot, which made it unsafe to continue driving.
When Mum moved to the apartment, we were all pleased for Dennis, as surely he would no longer receive multiple phone calls each day asking him to pop round to help with this or to fix that.
These calls had become so frequent that Dennis cut off his landline phone and used a mobile equipped with caller ID. He could no longer cope with the requests and the guilt, preferring to respond to Mum’s voice mail demands when he felt up to doing so.
My older sister was also bombarded with calls asking for help with various things, most being thinly disguised requests for visits to assuage Mum’s loneliness. Marti works full-time and lives 30 minutes away from Mum. With a big property to maintain, and children and grandchildren of her own, weekly visits to take Mum shopping and for outings were all she could manage.
This wasn’t enough for Mum, whose comments about selfishness did little to endear her to the two children living close enough to provide the companionship she craved.
Regular phone calls and deliveries from the rest of us could not appease Mum’s loneliness, and she was horrified when well-meaning representatives of a service for home-bound people from her church began to call on her.
“They don’t need to know my business,” she sniffed, refusing to answer the door until they got the message, and the visits stopped.
While Mum did make friends at her new home, and shared evening meals with them, she simply isn’t a social person. She began avoiding trips to the dining room, asking for trays to be delivered to her apartment. Staff were concerned, and encouraged Mum to socialise (as did we), to no avail.
This behaviour is not out of character for Mum, who throughout her life has avoided social opportunities, a trait that used to annoy our fun-loving Dad.
After his death in 1979, Mum’s world shrank. Long-time neighbours moved away and old friends died, as did all but two of her seven siblings.
While living at the old house, Mum could keep busy in the garden and, pre-shingles, was able to drive to church, the supermarket, and to outings.
But once she was ensconced in her small, tidy apartment, and could no longer drive, Mum went a bit stir crazy.
The calls to Dennis and Marti increased.
A friend for Mum
By this time Mum was getting frailer and her behaviour more erratic. Serious falls had led to extended stays in the facility’s hospital wing, where Mum spent long days watching TV while she recovered.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, it was clear that Mum was becoming ever more lonely. We weren’t sure how to help.
Then, during one visit, Mum said “I would love to meet a new friend, someone to just spend time with who likes the same things as me. Someone to have a laugh with.”
While Mum has made such statements throughout her life, this time her comment made me thoughtful.
But how do 83 year olds make new friends if they don’t drive, don’t socialise, no longer go to church or on outings, and are suspicious of ‘strangers’?
Matchmaking of any kind is not for the fainthearted, but I knew that more home support agencies and volunteer befriending services were offering companionship to socially isolated people like Mum. Could this work for her?
Magazine articles about how to find your perfect mate suggest making a list of all the qualities you would like in a partner. By articulating your wishes, you’re more likely to seek out these qualities in new beaus, and attract those who have them. Or so the theory goes.
In fact, this approach did the trick for us. I still have the piece of paper listing what traits Mum would love her new friend to have. The friend should be an older woman, Catholic; someone who enjoyed family history, old photos, chocolate, and talking about sports and current affairs. Someone who wouldn’t take fright at Mum’s oddball sense of humour. Someone who enjoyed political debate, and who could cajole Mum out of her apartment for a walk in the garden. Someone who liked music and singing. And whistling.
I sent this list to a home support agency based near Mum’s apartment and crossed my fingers.
While waiting for a response, a blizzard of emails and phone calls swirled across the world, between the United States, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. How did everyone feel about paying someone to visit Mum for a few hours a week? Someone to be her friend? From some there was cynical silence.
My own inner voice joined theirs, as we’ve all heard Mum’s refrain about the need to meet new friends for at least 40 years. Our youngest brother was aghast. “If I ever reach the stage where you have to pay someone to be my friend, just shoot me.”
But there was consensus, too: if we could find someone Mum liked, if having a new friend made her feel better and gave respite to Marti and Dennis, the $50 weekly cost would be a bargain!
The agency got in touch and said Marlys ticked every box, including the whistling.
Then we had a momentary reality check. Would Mum like and accept Marlys as her friend? Should we tell her we were paying Marlys? And, most importantly, would Marlys like Mum?
Four years and counting!
With hindsight, our quest to find a friend for Mum could have backfired. Mum might have been very hurt had she discovered we felt the need to hire a friend to keep her company (for better or for worse, we have kept this detail from Mum, though we suspect she knows and no longer cares).