Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My Mother-in-law's Keeper

When I was growing up, there were certain inequalities of life of which I was acutely aware. For instance, I noticed that one of my many aunts, Judy, had a house which was much bigger than my family's. I also noticed that she had nicer furniture, a much, much newer car, and brand name snacks were always in the house. From a kid's point of view, having a relative who always had Hostess Ho-Ho's on hand or my favorite brand of barbecue potato chips was pretty significant. My family was scrimping together returnable bottles for their deposits and hunting up stray change at the end of every month so they could afford milk, and her refrigerator was always fully-stocked.

Though I wasn't aware of this so much as a child, my mother was always competing with my aunt in a battle that she could never win. That is, a lifestyle battle. She overspent and got my family into debt because she wanted to keep up with Judy, but Judy had an edge in more ways than one. For one, her husband wasn't disabled and living on social security benefits like my father. For another, she lived with my grandmother and grandfather whose pensions helped augment her family's lifestyle in numerous ways.

It was the latter which I think galled my mother most. My aunt Judy was constantly being helped out by my grandmother from funds to finance a nicer home with better furnishings to new cars to free babysitting and support for her children when they were born. I think it was more upsetting for my mother because Judy was "the baby" of their large family and always had been my maternal grandmother's favorite.

All that being said, my aunt Judy paid a price for the relative affluence of her life. My grandfather was bedridden and had to be looked after all the time. He had worked in coal mines and suffered from black lung disease. He died when I was still too young to understand just how much of a burden this would have placed on those living in my aunt's house, but, as an adult, I now see the hardship clearly in retrospect.

As the years went on, my maternal grandmother also became increasingly weak, sickly, and somewhat senile. In the end, my aunt ended up having to look after her as well. To be fair, my other aunts and my mother did their best at times to stop in and look after their father while he was alive to give my aunt Judy and my grandmother a break. My mother actually lived closest, so she helped out more often than most.

At any rate, one lesson I learned from my upbringing was that the children who end up living with their parents benefit immensely for quite awhile materially, financially, and in terms of support for their young children, but then end up bearing a burden for awhile as well. My family was poor and lived in a really terrible house and my aunt lived in a nice, middle class place, but she also had a lot of the responsibility and stress as both of my grandparents became enfeebled.

As of late, this situation has come to the forefront for my husband and I, but not through my family. It has become an issue with my husband's family. His sister has been living with their mother and father for the past 19 years and now their mother has developed a degenerative disease which has left her showing increased signs of senile dementia and unable to walk or look after herself. She needs round the clock monitoring, careful scheduling of medication, and assistance with many basic needs like using the bathroom and washing.

My sister-in-law at first was not intimately involved with my mother-in-law's care, but merely gave breaks to my father-in-law. Now, her role has expanded greatly and she's become increasingly frustrated and stressed out by the responsibilities coupled with my father-lin-law's resistance to complying with her method of caring for his wife. She has two brothers, but both of them are residing in Japan so they cannot help in any measurable way. It's simply logistically impossible.

Usually, I don't get very involved in my in-laws' lives because the truth is that they have never had much interest in us. About 16 years or so ago, my sister-in-law needed some help with Photoshop and both my husband and I tried to establish a cordial relationship with her via e-mail. After she got what she wanted though, she begged off on further correspondence claiming she was too busy to really keep up much of a written conversation.

Additionally, and I believe I have blogged about this before, but I'll repeat it as a reminder. My husband and I were flat out refused when we asked to temporarily reside with them when we lived in California. We lived with my husband's best friend's family instead. When we left for Japan, his father begrudged storing some of our boxes in his garage and wanted us to put our items in paid storage. In other words, his family has not done much to support us when we needed help nor shown more than a cursory interest in our lives, particularly if maintaining a relationship with us has required any more effort than talking on the phone.

As of late, my sister-in-law has been pelting my husband and brother-in-law with long, detailed letters venting and explaining about the details of her situation with her parents. She has even intimated that, if her parents exhaust their copious financial resources, she may call upon my husband and his brother to bear some monetary burden. The ludicrousness of that can't be overemphasized. Both my sister-in-law's husband and my father-in-law make a great deal more money than my husband and I combined.

At any rate, my husband doesn't have a talking relationship with his sister from a distance for the aforementioned reasons, but my brother-in-law does. Today, my brother-in-law called my husband to vent about a conversation that he had with their sister. Apparently, she expressed some anger and resentment that she is bearing the brunt of the care of her elderly parents and is increasingly burnt out from coping with it. She is especially put out by the fact that she's had to put "her" life on hold to deal with these new responsibilities.

While I do feel empathy for my sister-in-law, I also know that she has benefited greatly from living with her parents from free babysitting services for her two kids when they were younger, to free food when they used to have meals together, to having the opportunity to invest in and live in a piece of prime real estate in one of the most lucrative areas in California, to a certain level of support and security, she has had benefits that one brother (my husband) was overtly and specifically denied and the other has not been present for.

Because I grew up around extended family who had such a markedly improved life via their association with my grandparents, I have always been aware of both sides of the coin. It strikes me that anyone who benefits from cohabitation with their parents should see that the road ahead is likely to end in a particular way, but some people are too self-involved to realize that they had it better than their siblings and too selfish to realize that their responsibility will be proportionally greater when the time comes.


Kelly said...

Sorry to hear about this Orchid. It puts you and your husband in a really difficult situation, but definitely I agree with everything you have said.

I think your sister in law has benefited greatly from living with her parents, but now that it is time to live up to her side of the deal, she wants to reneg. I think it's a matter of sour grapes. Especially as they never bothered to help you guys in the past.

Maybe she has only just realised what she signed up for when she decided to live with her parents and she doesn't like it. It's possible that she never thought about the end of the bargain.

It's easy in that situation to turn your bad "deal" into anger and resentment against the other party who don't have any obligations.

I've seen it happen in my own family. In that case the problem also extended to the time when the parents died and there was a big battle for the inheritance, one sibling was demanding more than a 3 way split because she had done all the caring before death.

It's a really difficult situation to be in, but definitely I would say to stand your ground. At least you are not in any reachable distance to her, so you can not open her emails or her letters.
Or answer her phone calls.

Orchid64 said...

I consider myself exceptionally fortunate that my husband is capable of drawing boundaries and keeping his responses between us. I know he will put our relationship first, and my interests before those of his family. If we lived nearby, I'm sure he and I would both be happy to help, despite the fact that his family has been disinterested in our lives and unsupportive. Trying to involve us from a distance is simply wrong and even hinting vaguely that we may have to pay for the parents' future care is off the scale of ridiculousness.

Apparently one of the things my sister-in-law wants of my brother-in-law is to have him talk to their father about what she wants. She essentially wants to stage an "intervention" to push their father to do whatever it is that she wants him to do, but neither my husband nor his brother are in a position to interfere. They don't live there and don't know enough about both sides. It's just not right for them to counsel their father in any way and it's even more inappropriate to have them push him to take specific actions.

Both my brother-in-law and husband feel that the right thing to do is for their sister to set up boundaries and limits regarding how much of her life she is willing to sacrifice and to leave my father-in-law to cope as he chooses. If she did this, her father might be forced to take some of the actions she wants him to take in terms of hiring more outside help, but she is either unwilling or unable to do this.

To be fair to my sister-in-law, while she has definitely benefited from living with her parents, her parents have been sometimes petty about various things which may make it harder for her to see how she has benefited. She lives with her parents, but she pays them rent. That being said, she's not paying the fair market value for rent for the size of property in the area they live in and part of that rent money is her buying the house. Again, this was not an option either of the sons had been given. Even if they wanted to "invest" in a slice of their parents' property, no one extended them that option like they did the sister.

I don't know what is going to happen in the future. I have always assumed that the parents would either spend all of their assets before they pass away (they have not lived low on the hog) or that somehow the situation would work out that the sister would end up getting most of those assets (because of the buying out). I think it's a foregone conclusion that neither my husband nor his brother will be fighting over their slice of the pie when all is said and done because neither expects much. I guess at least there won't be an inheritance problem like you mentioned with your family.

badmoodguy (Бадмўдгуи) said...

This hits close to home as my parents and I lived with my maternal grandparents for a number of years. We took care of my grandmother as she suffered from cancer, and then my grandfather as he suffered emphysema. It was rough, to be sure, but we did receive some benefit: a paid-for house to live in, always enough food, etc. Helping out mamaw and papaw in their time of need was something that we were all too pleased to do anyhow, because there was no one else to do it and it was a great to spend so much time with them before they passed on. Those final few years were precious.

Thankfully there was no fighting between my mum and her sister as my grandparents had nothing but the house to begin with. After my grandfather was put into a nursing home for acute care, mum and dad had to buy the house at fair market value due to medicaid regulations. So, in the end, it all worked out OK and no one really received any special benefits.

Orchid64 said...

My family has a long history of looking after their parents. My mother, father, and sister looked after my paternal grandmother as her mental and physical faculties waned (I was in Japan). She was poor and lived in their house, so they did not benefit and took on quite a burden as she became rather psychotic at times and used to lash out and say they were trying to kill her.

My grandmother looked after her mother as well. It probably took years off her life to take care of my great grandmother as she had to do it alone and my grandfather (they were in a common-law marriage, not actually married) refused to live with her mother. My great grandmother suffered from Alzheimer's and required constant attention which really taxed my grandmother, but she did it anyway.

Since I'm here, my sister lives with my parents. She mainly helps out financially now, but I'm afraid the burden on her will grow as time goes by. She just gets a house to live in mainly, but she is paying bills for them anyway.

I think it is important to look after your parents, and it's not always possible for one or another person to do it. In the end, there are hard choices to make (choosing a nursing home when things get too hard, for instance). My great grandmother's Alzheimer's reached a stage where she was endangering herself and others so she had to be put in a home - she would do things like get up in the middle of the night and turn on the gas because she thought she was going to cook breakfast, then forget it and go back to bed.

It's a tough question, but honestly, there's really nothing we can do from here and we literally could not remain in California, so that's the way the dice have rolled.

Anonymous said...

I can identify with not all but some of your post, my parents have all their inheritance split equally, no matter who or whom is the more responsibility, this way to avoid any sibling rivalry... no favorites in terms of money.

BUT- My Aunt, on my fathers side (his sister), when my dad has a spell, she has SUDDENLY came around to help bring him here and there, therapy because his left arm is not up to par with driving, so he can't and he is on disability from work until retirement age.

She has from occasion hinted around to getting a "power of attorney", so that is something would happen to him my mom would get the funds-- so my lazy, money grubbing brother would not take advantage, but he can't... her intention was to have herself on there some how, some way-- I saw this from the beginning, but hard to pet because she has a good heart, yet very selfish one... I would not trust her to be honest, she and I talked when I patching things up with my mum, we have been since 10 years now and finally got it back to where it was--- but now since we are back to "normal" so-to-speak, she does not really talk to me, or e-mail me back....

So I think family can be just as vicious as some so-called friends too.

I have this rule, blood is not thicker than water, and generally I won't kick someone to the curb unless they intentionally did so to hurt or make me feel sad, inferior just to make themselves happy...

Honestly, I would say the "heck" with her- no different them a friend coming around when they ONLY need money.. and so forth, and kudos for your husband putting you first.