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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 53.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Mother-in-law's no joke
How can I get her to stop acting like a child?

This is about my mother-in-law. The problem is that she acts like a child but refuses to be treated like one. She's 82 but still lives at home by herself. We've tried to get her to move into one of those assisted-living places, but she refuses. Unfortunately, she's not quite capable of taking care of herself. I have to help her with the cleaning, which I don't mind, or at least I wouldn't mind if she didn't insist I do it her way. Then, when I politely ask whether I can fix her some lunch, she says she's perfectly capable of fixing her own lunch, quit treating her like a child. She wasn't always like this. When her husband was still alive, she focused everything on him. Now she focuses it all on me. That's how it feels, anyway. What should I do about her?

End of My Rope

End of My Rope: Your mother-in-law sounds like a very lovely woman. I only wish she could have met my own dear mother, who had similar issues having to do with giving up control. One of life's great ironies is when we switch roles with our parents. One day, they're the parents and we're the kids, like always. The next day, we're tucking them in at night, telling them to eat their peas and asking them when they last pooped and how soft it was. Okay, not the very next day, but it happens so gradually that you don't notice it at first. "You're talking to me in baby-talk," my mom once said to me toward the end of her life. And she was right, my voice had imperceptibly changed. For the record, I don't think even babies should be talked to in baby-talk. It just allows them to stay stuck in that goochie-goochie-goo mode when they should be mastering the finer points of the King's English.

Of course, talking that way is more for the parents' benefit, just as talking that way to my mom was for my benefit. It allowed me to express my concern for her, but at a remove, without any true intimacy. And she was right to call me on it. My dad was worse. His mind went before the rest of him, and by the end he was wearing diapers and being told bedtime stories. And when he would leave his room in the nursing home, his clothes had all these name tags on them, because he was in the habit of stripping down and neglecting to bring his clothes back with him. He would also neglect to bring himself back sometimes, like a child who couldn't quite make it home from school. Why is life set up so that we retrace our footsteps out of the womb on our way to the tomb? I don't know, but if there's one word to describe what we tried to guarantee my parents on their way out, that word would be "dignity."

Likewise, I suspect your mother-in-law is trying to hold on to her dignity while losing control of all the things she's staked her sense of dignity on over the years. And who can blame her? The other day, the guy behind the counter at the movie theater asked me if I wanted the senior rate, and I nearly bit his head off. Wasn't it only yesterday that I was praying the guy behind the counter at the liquor store wouldn't card me? Or does it just seem like yesterday because it's happened so gradually I didn't notice it at first? Your mother-in-law may not have noticed that her dignity is slipping away, End of My Rope. She may only think she's losing control. Anyway, I would keep all that in mind while doing what any run-of-the-mill advice columnist would have told you to do already: Involve your spouse. If anybody's going to have to discipline this petulant parent, it should be her own child.

To tell me I better go now because we aren't stopping once we're on the road, write to: Mr. Right, Isthmus, 101 King St., Madison, WI 53703. Or call 251-1206, ext. 152. Or email

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