Help! My Grandma Lives Alone in a Huge House She Can't Maintain. Should We Force Her to Move?

Advice on manners and morals.
June 24 2013 2:47 PM

This Old House

In a live chat, Prudie offers advice about an elderly grandma who can no longer maintain her giant, run-down home—but refuses to move.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Enabling the Elderly?: My grandma is in her early 80s and lives alone in a huge, dilapidated house that she grew up in. The home is not safe. It has very steep stairs, rickety railings—she has fallen and broken bones a few times in the past few years—there is mold, and she cannot keep it clean. Yet she refuses to move elsewhere. The family responds by traveling great distances, several times a week, to help her—these are people with jobs, special-needs kids, spouses who are terminally ill. In short, they are getting run down and exhausted, and it is a huge burden on multiple families. I also worry that she will more seriously injure herself or even die because of this house and her refusal to move. I can't think of another situation where family would go to such great lengths to help someone stay in a situation that is literally harming and is likely to kill her. Do you think this is enabling? Would it be cruel to tell her that some of the assistance/the visits/etc. won't happen unless she downsizes to something safer, goes into assisted living, or moves in with a relative (at least one of her children has offered this)? We are at the end of our rope.

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A: I love going to real estate open houses, but occasionally I see a once-valuable property that is in a state of decay and disrepair. I always wonder where the other family members were while the home—and presumably the owner—was falling apart. But as your case shows, it can sometimes be very difficult to help a recalcitrant old person and people back away out of misplaced love. Your grandmother may not have dementia, but clearly she is incapable of making good decisions for herself, so her loved ones have to make them for her. This could require getting power of attorney and taking over her living situation. Perhaps the house needs to be sold to help pay for her to go to a facility where she will be safe and cared for. I know many old people and their loved ones think going to a nursing home is the cruelest kind of abandonment, but a clean, well-run place is so much better than a dangerous, mold-filled wreck. You're not actually independent if you're falling down and requiring overtaxed family members to attend to your every need. It is a kindness to make sure your grandmother is being well taken care of. And I hope her lesson is learned by the generation behind her as they face their own old age.

Dear Prudence: Errant Dildo

Q. Friend's Estranged Father: I have been close friends with “Jessica” for about four years. We met in college, and I have also traveled to stay with her family for vacation. Her parents separated when she was young, and she basically considers her stepfather her “dad.” I think she has had some, but very little, sporadic contact with her real father over the years, but I don't know very much about that, and I am not entirely sure what their history is. She hasn't volunteered a whole lot of information, and I am afraid to ask. But last week, I received a Facebook message from someone who says he is her father, asking me if I am close friends with Jessica and saying that he wants to come for a surprise visit but that he needs someone to help him plan it. Prudie, I don't know what to do! I am not even sure that she wants him to visit at all, but what if she does, and I ruin a wonderful opportunity for them to be reunited because I don't help?

A: Creep alert! Who knows who this guy is, but if he's Jessica's father, this approach confirms that she's been better off having him out of her life. Let's assume he is the dad. If so, this is a bizarre and disturbing way to try to resume contact with his daughter. You should immediately forward this message to Jessica and get confirmation that he is her father. If he is, you should tell her that you are very uncomfortable having been contacted by him and you are leaving it up to her and her family to handle this. Don't respond to his request, and block him so you don't get any more. Think about this—you have gotten an invitation from a middle-aged stranger to get together with him and help him plan a surprise party for his estranged daughter. This guy is the definition of someone you never want to meet.

Q. Need Help: I lost my wife due to cancer on Jan. 1, 2012. I understand my in-laws' situation and the loss of their daughter. Even before my wife got sick, they weren't very supportive to my family because we are an interracial couple. Her parents are still old-school, even though in public they accepted our marriage. After I lost my wife, they asked my son (21 years old) to take some stuff from my house, some of which belonged to my wife and other things to her aunt. I did not know about this until my son informed me three months later. I haven't had any communication with my in-laws since my wife passed away. I am not interested in seeing them anymore. I have a 12-year-old daughter, and I'm not interested in exposing her to them and the way they have treated us in past. Sometimes I feel it's wrong, but mostly I want to just avoid them and move on with my life. Any suggestions on how to handle this?

A: They sound like lousy people who manipulated your son to violate your trust. I understand your wanting to cut off ties, but you have to look at this from the perspective of your daughter: What is her relationship with your in-laws, and what would it mean to her to be estranged from them? You don't elaborate on the poor ways they have treated your family. It could be they are totally irredeemable people, and your daughter will be better off having them out of her life. But it could be that as lousy as they are, your daughter has a better relationship with them than you, and she would feel a grave loss at being cut off from this side of her family. Your daughter is still young, but she is old enough for you to talk about this with her. You can tell her you've had your problems with her grandparents, but you know they love her very much and you want to make it possible for her to see them if that's what she wants. If she does, use all your maturity to facilitate this while keeping a wide berth from them yourself.

Q. Re: Enabling the Elderly: You can't "get" a power of attorney—it must be given by the person willing to give authority to another—and that person retains the ability to withdraw the power of attorney at any time. The only way to use the law to force someone to take such action would be a declaration of incompetency by the court, which is not easy to obtain.

A: It could be that in this case the family could hire a social worker to help explain to grandmother that the current situation is unsustainable and that her family loves her wants to help her make decisions to keep her comfortable and safe. If grandmother would prefer to break her bones in a moldy wreck of a house, then it might be time to escalate and have the incompetency declaration made. She certainly can be told that the current situation cannot be sustained, and the family will order Meals on Wheels and other social services to do the feeding and checking in on her, because they can only show up occasionally.

Q. Wedding Craziness!: My fiancé and I are going to be married in March. A lot of my family has to travel to our wedding, so I've let them know already if they are invited and given formal invitations. My aunt (my mother's sister) and uncle had a very long and painful divorce. He was an alcoholic and would abuse her in front of me and my cousins as kids. It has been about seven years, and I have no desire to have a relationship with my ex-uncle. However, he found out about my wedding and has been pestering me and my other family members as to why he is not invited. He claims he is a changed man and I am cruel for not giving him another chance. I always have vivid and terrible memories of him. Should I give him a chance? On a side note, all of his children are invited since we are all still very close, and my aunt says it's my choice (although she seemed extremely uncomfortable).

A: A long-divorced uncle with whom you have no relationship and of whom you only have bad memories has really not changed if he is pestering you for an invitation to a wedding that's nine months away. If he were a jackass who was still married to your aunt, it's only under the most extreme circumstances that you wouldn't invite him. But once someone is divorced from your relative, that person no longer gets an automatic place on the invitation list. Just ask Sarah Ferguson, who had to watch the last royal wedding on the telly while her ex and her daughters attended. Tell your ex-uncle that you're happy his life is better but the guest list is closed, then close off any further conversation.

Q. Former Smoker's Husband: My wife, "Sue," was a heavy smoker for years but managed to quit before we moved to this area nearly 20 years ago. Sadly, she still died of lung cancer earlier this year at age 52. I think anyone who watches someone die of lung cancer would quit smoking on the spot, but I digress. Sue never wanted anyone to know her "dirty little secret," though I think the fact she was able to quit was a major accomplishment. While I promised to keep her secret, I now hear smokers say, "After all, Sue died of lung cancer, and she never smoked." I'd like to tell them the truth: "Actually she was a heavy smoker for many years," as a cautionary tale. On the other hand, I realize some people who never smoked still develop lung cancer. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

A: I know your wife wanted to keep the fact that she was a former smoker a secret, and like you, I don't understand why. But surely she wouldn't want her death to be used as an example by smokers that lung cancer is a random event and her death had nothing to do with their habit. I don't think it's dishonoring your late wife's memory to tell these people that, unfortunately, your wife's death was cigarette-related. I think it's fair to say you were really proud that she quit a heavy habit years ago, but unfortunately, the damage had already been done.

Q. Gay Father and Unsuspecting Daughters: My wife and I separated last year on amicable terms, at her request, after I confided in her that I am gay. I insisted that I am in love with her and wanted to stay with her as well as with our two preteen daughters, but she made it clear that she would not stay with a gay man. My question is: How and when should I tell my daughters that I am a gay man? They deserve to hear the truth from me and not from someone else, but my wife insists that she doesn't want them to ever find out, since it would be too painful for them, since it has been too painful for her. Please help.

A: It surely is going to be less painful for your daughters to find out the real reason their parents marriage ended than to wonder forever what happened and know there is some big secret that's being withheld. Ending a seemingly happy marriage is painful, and finding out your partner has a different sexual orientation from what you thought is wrenching. I hope your wife finds her way to the Straight Spouse Network; she needs to hash out what has happened to her with others who have been there. But she simply cannot demand that you keep your sexuality a secret. Even though you are headed toward divorce, seeing a counselor to help you two get on the same page as far as your children are concerned will be a big help for all of you over the years.

Q. Surprise Visit From Mom: My mother, who I love but am not particularly close to, recently expressed her disappointment when I told her how busy I'll be in the next few months because she had planned on surprising me with a visit. We live flying-distance away, and frankly someone showing up unannounced sounds like a nightmare to me. I volunteer a lot on the weekends and plan dinners and other activities, so just showing up would force me to cancel these plans last minute. I've tried to gently tell her that I would love for her and my stepdad to plan a visit and that just calling me from the airport isn't OK. My aunt recently surprised my married/pregnant cousin with a visit (coordinated with her husband), and I think this is what's bringing this on. I'm not sure that she's taking the hint.

A: I don't understand whose feelings are being spared when family members ineffectually hint to one another about things they want or things that are bothering them. Just spit it out: "Mom, I know Aunt June had a fun surprise visit to Courtney, but I hate surprises. If you call me from the airport one day, that's just going to be a lot of stress on both of us. Either I have to cancel my weekend plans, or I keep them—then I can't see you. Let's get out our calendars and make a date that's good for a visit for all of us."

Q. Competitive Grieving: My cousin is angry at my family for mourning the loss of my mom, if you can believe that. My mom was 75 years old when she died, and my cousin told me that it's ridiculous that anyone's sad at her passing: "It's not like she was 30 years old with three young kids." I responded by saying, "Are you serious?" and almost decked her. (I wish I would have, but my kids were with me.) I don't know why she made the comments; she barely knew my mom. To top it off, she's contesting the will by claiming that she and my mom were extremely close. She feels she's entitled to most of what my mom is leaving, which is not a small amount. She never visited my mom when she was sick, and the only time they were in contact was during family events (wedding, funerals, etc.). She's already told her friends (some of them are mutual) that she's expecting to retire soon (she's only 45) because of a huge inheritance. How do I deal with this person?

A: Restraining order? Your cousin sounds disturbed, and not interacting with her at all is the best way to go. Be grateful you didn't deck her; the last thing you need is to have an assault charge against you regarding this woman. You should definitely warn the people handling your mother's estate that this loose cannon is rolling around and may make some unsupported claims about an inheritance, just so they are ready to deal with this idiot.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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