Carolyn Hax: Advice

Elderly auntie’s calls are overwhelming

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My wife’s great aunt lives in a retirement village. She has medical issues and is also lonely. Our problem is that she talks incessantly once she gets one of us on the phone. It is impossible to end the conversation. She says, “This will only take a minute.” But it goes on for an hour or more, often while we are trying to get our daughter in bed at night or hurrying to leave in the morning. She imagines that she has done things to upset her friends. She has all our cell and home numbers. If she does not get an answer at one number she calls the others. We have tried not answering, but when we later return the call she is emotional because she knows we were home and she feels hurt. Is there a decent way to handle this dear old lady?

Compulsive Talk-ee

Yes — appointment calling. Call only when there’s time to burn (I know, I know) and make sure it’s a regular appointment. If there are others in your position, coordinate with them so that she gets a call a day, if possible. If she calls you at an inopportune time, then do keep screening as you must, and simply say that you’re sorry you couldn’t pick up, you weren’t in a position to talk. Hold that line and don’t grant that it’s an emotional issue, it’s strictly logistics — you were on another line, cooking dinner, supervising homework, etc. Because you were. It’s not bad just because she thinks it is.

The more ways you can find to address this too, the better it'll likely be for all of you. For example, if your daughter is old enough to talk via Skype, the long talk sessions could be good for her vocab, social skills and sense of family/community, while easing Auntie’s loneliness and allowing you to catch up on the dishes. If you can also mix in some visits and/or low-maintenance field trips, and again share these among other family members, that would ease the pressure on the phone calls. Etc.

And you have to push yourself past the I-can’t-cut-someone-off barrier. You can and you have to, because sometimes you have to get somewhere on time — and because your need to dodge her calls isn’t solely her fault for being so needy. Part of it is on her, of course, because it’s not right, fair or healthy to look to other people to ease her loneliness for her. We all struggle and we all have to remain as mindful of our own responsibility in getting our needs met, at least as mindful as our mental health permits us.

But part of it is on you, too, for not being able/willing to say, “Hey, sorry to cut you off, I have to get Daughter to bed.” You’d say it to anyone else, right? Because it’s true? So you can say it to her.

If you can learn to say no — or, in this case, “Hey … hey … hey … hey, Auntie, I … I have to stop you there, I’m sorry – I have to go,” then you'll be able, albeit still not obligated, to pick up the phone when she calls.

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