Dear Carolyn: My mom has always been a wonderful baker and has traditionally brought desserts to every family function. However, as she reaches her 70s, her baking has taken a turn for the worse and everything she makes is pretty awful. I feel awful because I know she loves to bake but the desserts are inedible.
I’ve tried everything from saying I’d prefer store-bought to save her time, to saying that we’re trying to be healthy and abstain from dessert, to finally saying that although we sympathize that she can’t have gluten, we’d prefer to make a gluten-full dessert because we don’t find the gluten-free items worth the calories. Nothing deters her and the awful desserts keep coming, along with awkward moments for those who feel compelled to eat them.
This question is about whether it’s better for me to continue being blunt or just learn to bite my tongue, but I’d also like your advice on generally how I should react as she ages. Feeling like she’s contributing is so important to her; how can I help her feel dignified and like she has purpose? She was seriously ill a few years ago and despondent over the idea of not being of use to anyone. I have told her that her presence in our lives is enough, but she doesn’t think it is.
I am seeing this now with another elderly relative who keeps bemoaning that she might as well die because she is a burden and can’t do anything for anyone anymore. How can the younger generation manage this without being patronizing or deceptive? – Name Withheld
This is a sad chapter in any family, the long (if you’re lucky) or abrupt goodbye to beloved members and the roles they play in your lives.
It’s even sadder for people who have apparently never heard of cheesecake.
Ooh. Or fudge.
Your mother is barely 70, if not still in her 60s, yes? This is so not “elderly.” I realize illness gets the last word on vitality, not age, but your desire not to patronize her can take root in the fact that she’s at the youngest end of old. So it’s time to tweak her role in the family, not phase it out.
I mean, seriously – you’re just tweaking recipes at this point.
Adjustments, conveniently, are what good families are good at. We’re all changing with time, not just the ones at the older end of the scale. Kids turn into adults. Recipients become providers become recipients. People become caregivers, then need care themselves, then become caregivers again, and with any luck everyone brings dessert. Flexibility is so important you should set a place for it at the table.
If you’re worried about how to turn the idea of flexibility into words and actions, then look to your own history. How have you spoken and acted in the past? Have you been blunt, wry, soft-spoken, slapstick, inspirational-mottoey, arrow-straight, accommodating, what? Any adjustment you make to your interactions with your mom will sound best (and, again, the least patronizing) in your own voice. So a historically comically blunt you would offer a fudge cheesecake recipe to your mom as, “Let’s try for gag-free gluten-free.”
With, of course, careful attention to how your usual tone is received. Sensitivities vary over time as well. As any parent of a 13-year-old can tell you. If she flinches, then go for buffered truth: “Mom, you’re the best baker I know. You’ll figure out the gluten-free thing – I’ve done some Googling, if you’re interested.”
As for whether you’re required to eat inedible desserts in the meantime, again, read the room. If the room tells you to be brave, then remind yourself that society has had this one covered for years. A few bites and a thank-you.
And when you get to the point where traditional usefulness in the form of feeding or hosting or cleaning is really really out of the question for a loved one, don’t forget the usefulness of sharing and presence. Your elderly relative who feels she “can’t do anything for anyone anymore” is the one whose company you request, whose stories you prompt, whose chair you pull yours up to, whose photo albums you retrieve so she can tell you who everyone is and what was happening on that day. Because no one else can do that for the rest of you, and because it’s so important. She can ground you, enrich you, humble you, connect you. Show the next generation how it’s done.
If she pooh-poohs that, then that’s her prerogative – you can’t make people like where they are in life. But it’s your prerogative to keep encouraging her – and any other relatives too young or too ill or too overwhelmed by life to join the family-gathering labor pool – to contribute companionship. And if they absolutely insist on dotting that “i” with inedible pie, then be glad that’s as bad as it gets.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com.
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