When Trying to "Fix It" Doesn't Fix It

Deborah shares the lightbulb moment where she learned the importance of giving what is needed, not what you think you should offer.

“Grandma called.”

“Oh, how did that go?”

“Great, she seems fine – we had a lovely chat.”

Split Personality

Once again I was puzzled. I had spoken to my mother, Lucy’s grandma, that same evening and come away with a very different impression.  My mother had sounded increasingly resentful and argumentative – whatever I said seemed to fuel her fire and it felt like we were going around in circles. 

The weird thing is, this wasn’t the first time my (grown up) daughter and I had appeared to speak with two completely different women on the same night. “What was going on?”, I wondered.

Clearly it was a difference in perception – not an identity swap.  My mother was the common denominator, so the contrast in personality must be down to the variable –my daughter and me. Something we were saying was bringing out the best and the worst in my mum, her grandma.

I have no brothers or sisters and my father died over 20 years ago.  My mother has always been an anxious person (although feisty!) and had depended very heavily on my calm, protective father.  So increasingly over the past two decades I had tried to fill my father’s shoes and ensure that my mother was safe, contented and secure.  I constantly asked myself if I was doing enough, if I had missed anything – if I was matching up to the ideal daughter, champion, and problem-solver I had set myself up to be.

Failing to Fix it

As my mother’s health gradually declined, I was always on the case for researching her medication, sourcing practical resources and suggesting solutions. I couldn’t bear any loose ends or uncertainty, I had to find out what was best to do – and to do it.  And yet my mother was so sad, continuing to mourn her husband of over 40 years, frustrated at her failing sight and rapidly diminishing mobility, and ever fearful of new challenges, real or anticipated.

I felt a deep sense of failure, which I began to realise was bringing a stubborn streak to my quest to solve my mother’s problems. The more I ‘failed’, the more determined I was to succeed. But what can success really mean in this situation? Try as I might I couldn’t bring back my father, cure my mother’s physical ills or change her into a carefree optimist. 

So what could be a more realistic goal for me to set myself?  My husband suggested, gently, that actually this wasn’t all about me – it was about her.  What did my mother need?  Did she need a rather irritable, stressed wanna-be superhero daughter?  Or did she need some love, understanding and compassion?

My Lightbulb Moment

Suddenly, the penny dropped.  Talking it through with my daughter, I discovered that if my mum mentioned feeling ill, or sad, or complained that the carers had moved things and she couldn’t find them – Lucy sympathised with her. She said comforting things, and agreed that it must all be very frustrating, or annoying – or just that it was a shame.  My mum felt listened to and supported – even though no solution had been offered. By contrast, when I spoke with her I immediately looked for an answer, “remember to tell them before they leave the room that you need the radio near you”, “maybe you should check with the doctor about your meds,” “try taking deep breaths and imagine you are on holiday”.  No wonder I got the cross phone call and my daughter had the lovely chat!

Of course it is always tempting to try and solve everything for your loved ones, but sometimes some things just can’t be fixed. Even so, most things feel better when your fears or pain are acknowledged, and someone just offers you love and sympathy.   I’ve learned a valuable lesson and my calls with my mother are changing in character as I try to be a loving listener and not a frustrated fixer.

For more information and advice, take a look at our eldercare partners:

Chosen with Care

Helping Hands