Wednesday 29 January 2020

When Mum moved in: Could your mother the ultimate room-mate?

Could your mother actually be the ultimate room-mate? Barbara Scully investigated, and was surprised at the outcome

Mother knows best: Barbara Scully with her mother Noirin in Barbara’s home. Photo: Mark Condren
Mother knows best: Barbara Scully with her mother Noirin in Barbara’s home. Photo: Mark Condren

Barbara Scully

It was January 2015 when I got our 'guest room' ready for the arrival of my mammy, Noirin Scully. We only have the luxury of a guest room because our eldest took off for Australia five years ago and seems to like it there very much. When we finally realised that we could dismantle her bedroom, we decided to do some swapping around internally so that our new guest room is on the ground floor, making it an ideal spot to accommodate the mother.

Our downstairs bathroom is right next door, as is the kitchen. It's a nice bright room and as I made the bed up carefully and put in some fresh towels and flowers I declared to my two remaining children "watch and learn, girls. This is how I want to be looked after in my old age."

Noirin, however, had different ideas. She had had a particularly difficult winter health-wise so although she was delighted to come to stay with us for some respite, once she began to recover her energy, she was like an indoor cat who suddenly realises that there is a much more exciting world beyond the back door. I tried to get her to think about making this stay more permanent. I worry about her in her own house.

But no, she was determined to go home. As I continued to try to 'sell her' the idea of living 'chez nous', she finally explained it to me in a way I could understand by saying, "Barbara, you know when you are away and it's great. But then it's time to go home and you look forward to that. There is nothing like your own bed and your own house." And I got it. And so home she went, for the time being.

It's perhaps interesting to hear, in a time when the idea of giving older people incentives to move out of their homes is being floated as a potential remedy to the housing crisis - that just because you're elderly, that doesn't mean you want to leave the home you created throughout your life, and that living alone isn't always a bad thing for an older person.

Having extended family come to live is something I am very used to. When I was growing up, along with having three brothers who were enough of a trial for me, my uncle came to live with us when I was nine years old. Ben is my mother's brother and he has a learning disability (although we had different terminology in the 1970s). Then when I was a few years older my paternal grandad came to stay, too. It was a mad house - full of men except for me and my ma and so we are very close. Those two facts probably account for how I always assumed that eventually Noirin would come to live with us.

And yes, I am married to a man who is generous to a fault and who understands that my dear mother was part of the deal when he married me. Luckily they both hit it off very well. My daughters also idolise their grandmother and so were very happy to have her around.

So how did Noirin really feel about our little experiment in having her to stay? "It was a good test drive but I did miss my own home desperately. I know that at some stage due to health issues I might come to live with you permanently but I would worry about it being unfair especially on teenagers, to have a 'not very well granny' onboard," she said.

Given that Noirin herself ran a mad house when we were kids, I wonder does she miss company, now that her house is so quiet? "Ah but I don't have the energy for that kind of madness anymore. And lots of people around, even if you are not cooking and cleaning, can be very tiring. I generally don't mind being on my own."

Broadcaster and media consultant Tara Duggan is also the daughter of a fiercely independent woman and she too lives alone. Her mother says that it doesn't matter how decrepit or how struck down with dementia she might be in the future but she doesn't want any of her children moving in with her and equally she doesn't want to move in with any of them. Tara suspects that her mother's attitude may be coloured by her own experience of having her mother living with the family for decades.

"She does not want us to be restricted. I do remember that my granny did all the ironing and she washed up every night. There was a lot of good things about my granny being there. But she could be quite interfering. We got on brilliantly in later years but she wasn't great to have around when I was younger," says Tara.

Writer Hazel Larkin used to have her partner's mother come to stay for extended periods. The first visit happened when she was living in Singapore with her fiancé and it was announced that his mother was on her way from India for a visit. Hazel assumed this meant a period of somewhere between two and maybe six weeks. "She arrived and stayed a month and that was fine and then she was there for two months and I was beginning to wonder what the story was. This was just before we were married and I had never met her before," says Hazel.

So did she think that mother was coming to give her sons bride the once-over? "There was a bit of that and a bit of this was what she did. She would spend six months with one son and six months with the other son in the US."

Hazel says her mother-in-law was very passive-aggressive. Although her son declared that he liked Hazel's cooking, his mother used to get up at 5am, say her prayers and then make dinner for that evening. "That was presented as her doing me a favour so that I didn't have to cook. I would go out to the market and when I came back she would say, "Oh, did they not have the good mangoes?" and that kind of thing. Whatever I did wasn't quite right. And although she had reasonably good English, they would always converse in Tamil so that automatically excluded me from 80-90 per cent of the conversation in my own home."

So Hazel was relegated to the role of cleaner and washer-upper? "I was excluded from my own life in my own home. The second time she arrived I was better prepared and after three months I said to him either she goes or I do. And she decided to move on to visit the other son."

Psychotherapist Isobel Mahon has some very practical advice for families who are about to embark on this intergenerational adventure of having mother come to stay. "Remember that you are both separate adults and don't try to recreate first family relationships," is her first nugget of wisdom.

"Stay conscious of not imposing a regime (such as we all eat dinner at six etc) or imposing your expectations on each other," she says. "Flexibility is key on both sides, particularly when it's mother coming to stay. Mothers tend to be keen to help in a way that fathers generally don't. Mother must remember it's daughter's house and the more she fits in around that, the more welcome she will be. Be yourself but be considerate."

So back to my own mother. What did she think were the advantages of staying with us? "Well, obviously the rest. I love that you have cats because I missed my cats hugely. I like that you have a garden that I could sit in. I liked that I could retreat to my room and close the door and no one would disturb me." And the disadvantages? "Food might be an issue. I wouldn't feel that I could make demands about menus and my food tastes are a lot more traditional than yours are. I like my meat and you eat much later than I am used to."

I think I might need to talk to my girls again. Because I agree with my Ma, there is no place like home. Your own home. With your cats. Age doesn't change that.

Irish Independent

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