Help! My Brother Put Our 91-Year-Old Dad on a Strict Diet. What’s the Point?

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 18 2014 2:44 PM

Let Him Eat Cake

In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on whether a 91-year-old father should be withheld sweets.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Elderly Dad’s Diet: My dad is 91 and has diabetes. My brother, who lives with him, has put dad on a strict diet which cuts out all sweets. Dad finds his new diet depressing, particularly as he started comfort eating since his health declined rapidly in the past few months. Based on everything that’s going on health-wise I doubt he’d be around for much longer. So if he wants to eat cake and ice cream with every meal, I think he should. I am hesitant to criticize my brother who I know is trying his best in difficult circumstances. When I quietly brought up the issue of sweets, he insisted it was in dad’s best interests to keep him on the current diet. How can I press this issue further without driving a wedge between us?

A: Your father has significantly outlived the actuarial tables. So the nonagenarian years are gravy—or dessert in the case of your father. I agree with you that a man in his 90s who is fading is entitled to indulge himself and have cake and ice cream for dinner if that’s what he wants. Yes, it might speed his departure, but better to have a sweet ending then a bitter one. However, you are in a very delicate situation since your brother is on the front lines doing the heavy duty care. You can’t win by pressing this issue, but maybe you can enlist help. First of all, see if you can discuss this with your father’s doctor—you would need your father’s permission to have this conversation. If the doctor says some sweets won’t hurt, then you and your brother and your father should make an appointment to sit down with the doctor to discuss end-of-life issues and how to make your father’s last months as comfortable and happy as possible.

Q. Lunch Date?: I am a 19-year-old who has been interning for the past two months. Recently, one of the employees who shares an office with my boss invited me out to lunch and I find myself feeling a little uncomfortable at this request. We had barely shared a conversation before this point—he even asked me to remind him of my name right after he invited me to lunch! He also asked for my phone number, which seemed a little unnecessary since all relevant lunch communication could presumably take place in the office. I accepted the lunch request under the assumption that others around the office would also be joining us. However, when I later asked if my boss would be coming, he replied that he had “not invited him this time.” Since I am young and this is my first “real” job, is it possible that I am just overreacting to a friendly invitation? I just can’t shake the uneasiness of this request.

A: If this guy had an unseemly interest in you, you’d probably know it by now. I understand your discomfort, but there’s likely a wholly innocent backstory. Maybe the boss has rebuked this guy for not getting to know you and now this employee is trying to make an effort before you depart. Go to the lunch. Since he sounds like an awkward person to begin with, it might be an awkward hour. But you should assume this has been arranged in the spirit of “Get to know the intern!” so you should go in the spirit of “Get useful advice from the older guy!” Have a list of questions in your head about how he got into the field, suggestions for people starting out like you, recommendations about classes you should take to better prepare you—you get the idea. Order something that will arrive quickly and skip dessert and the whole thing will be over before you know it. And if in what I think is the unlikely event that your fears come to pass and he tries to make a pass, just stand up, say, “Dick, I’m going back to the office,” and leave.

Q. Is It OK for My 8-Year-Old Boy/Girl Twins to Sleep Together?: My 8-year-old twins sometimes sleep together at night. They each have their own bedroom, but sometimes one will go into the other one’s room at some point and crawl into bed with the other. I have tried to explore with them the reason (are you afraid/is something wrong/do you feel OK?). They say everything is fine and neither can verbalize a reason why they do this. I am thrilled that my kids get along as well as they do, and I am not concerned that they are doing anything inappropriate. But I wonder if this is something that my wife and I should discourage, or just let them be. I hate to make what is a positive behavior seem like anything but.

A: I once saw a delightful documentary about twins that showed how a pair of 3-year-olds liked to play by getting on either side of a curtain and pressing on each other—exactly mimicking how they “played” in the womb! What you describe sounds sweet and innocent. In a few years your kids will be hitting the outer edges of puberty and will be more self-conscious about their bodies. But since you don’t have any concerns now, just let this pair drift off while remember those happy days afloat next to each other.

Q. Re: End of Life Issues: Brava, Prudie, for pointing out that it is the quality, not quantity of life that matters for this nonagenarian. If it is applicable, I hope that this family gets in touch with a good hospice program and can openly discuss how this man’s last chapter can be as peaceful and meaningful as possible.

A: Hospice is an excellent idea. Hospice is not just for the final days, but can be a wonderful way of planning for the most supportive, comfortable end. A hospice program can bring relief to the brother, and be a gentle advocate for the father.

Q. Ice Cream: My brother eats the strawberry and chocolate part of the Neapolitan ice cream and only leaves the vanilla part. He does it despite our protests. I’m devastated and have received counseling for this. Is there a civil way to stop him?

A: Your brother is dope. My grandparents used to get Neapolitan ice cream and the way you eat it is to devour the chocolate, then toss the telltale vanilla and strawberry mounds until all is even. As much as you may have needed therapy for this situation, consider that if you buy a couple of quarts of chocolate it might divert your brother from the Neapolitan. But if that doesn’t work, try to stay civil while you explore the possibility of a civil suit.

Q. OK to Contact Extended Relatives After Adoption?: My father was adopted from a foreign country about 50 years ago. While he knows enough information about his mother to have tracked her down, he never did. I’ve done some Internet investigating of my own and found out much more about her, including that she married and had more children. I would really like to contact my father’s siblings, but I know he would be angry. Do I have a right to contact them? Does my father’s desire not to contact them trump my interests? I would worry about causing the siblings distress, but it’s possible they would want to know us. It seems such a shame to never know them, or to know more about my father’s mother.

A: It is certainly fine to contact biological relatives after an adoption if you’re the person who was adopted. Beyond that, the adopted person’s desires should be respected. Your father long ago decided not to be in contact with his biological mother. The family he was adopted into is your family. However, if you haven’t had a conversation with him about this subject in a long time, then reopen it with your father. Do not say you’ve identified some of his biological siblings. Explain to him that you have an interest in this part of your family history. Then ask if it would be all right with him for you to pursue this on your own. If he objects, then you must weigh what going ahead would mean for your own relationship with your father versus a potential relationship with a bunch of people who don’t know you exist.

Q. Psychotic Stepsister: My dad lives across the country from me, and I visit him every summer. He married “Annette” in April, so now I share a room with her daughter “Alissa.” I have always gotten a creepy vibe from Alissa, but I chalked it up to the stress of meeting new people and the wedding. I now realize Alissa has serious psychological issues. When we’re alone, she becomes a different person: aggressive, threatening, abusive. I’ve also noticed she lies through her teeth and steals from me. When I try to talk to my dad about Alissa, he finds excuses to explain how I misunderstood her actions. He’s begun to accuse ME of being the disturbed one. If I tell my mom about Alissa, she’ll force me to come home. If that happens, I’m worried I will never see my dad. It hurts he doesn’t believe me. I need advice, please.

A: Your father may not want to cause problems with his new wife and the stepdaughter he spends more time with than his own daughter. But if his own daughter comes to him with stories of being threatened and having her property stolen, he needs to show his concern, play close, attention, and take action. You are torn in the most painful way—you don’t want to be estranged from your father, yet you don’t want to feel unsafe when you visit him. You need to bring this up with him again in a private setting. Perhaps when you get home, you can arrange to have a Skype conversation while he is at work. Calmly tell him what went on and why being in a room with Alissa is disturbing, even frightening. If he starts to get his back up, suggest that maybe you two can change the way you see each other—maybe, for example, you and he can take a vacation by yourselves. I understand you feel your mother will only be hostile about your father, but I hope she also has the ability to listen to your concerns and help you figure out a plan. If you’re certain she can’t, then ask to get a therapist when you’re home. A neutral person can help you figure out strategies for dealing with this difficult situation.

Q. Re: End of Life Issues: There may be another way of looking at this. The brother that cares for the father may be in denial that these are his final days. When my mother was dying of multiple causes, one of which was lung cancer (not the thing that would ultimately kill her, however), I was a fanatic about not letting her smoke, after 50 years of being a chain smoker. She was miserable, I felt like a jailer, and in the end it didn’t matter. I wish now I’d just let her have her cigarettes—they gave her comfort and didn’t shorten her life. Maybe the brother needs a gentle reality check.

A: Great points, thanks.

Q. Re: Ice Cream: Have you considered using all of the vanilla first to make root beer floats, then leaving the chocolate and strawberry for your brother? This is of course the only acceptable use for vanilla ice cream, but it is a good one.

A: I think this is something for the judge to suggest during the trial.

Q. Mommy Dearest?: My soon-to-be 5-year-old has recently started saying things like, “I love Daddy more than you” and “Don’t you remember? I don’t like you that much.” I know it’s partially because he says that Daddy is “more fun” and that I yell at him, but given that I’m not the only one disciplining him (but he only seems to resent me) it still hurts. I’m not sure if I should force him to spend one-on-one “quality” time with me when he’d much rather be with his father, if given the choice. The last thing I want is to make him feel like spending time with me is a punishment of some kind and make him resent me even more.

A: It’s brutal, but you’ve got to give your son credit for honest feedback. First of all, it’s not unusual for a child to play one parent off another; it’s amazing how early in humans Machiavellian traits emerge. You’re right, Mom, you don’t want to try to improve your relationship with your son by making being with you into a punishment. You want to improve your overall relationship with him. Parents are allowed to be human too, and sometimes we lose it and yell. But if yelling is your standard discipline technique, you need to rethink your approach. Read some books on being a more effective parent. Parent Effectiveness Training is one, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is another. Learning to ratchet down the conflict will allow you to spend more time having fun with your son. Which will make both of you happy to spend time together. 

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

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