The Need for a Few Good Geriatricians

On Your “Best Behavior” When the Children Visit?

Last month, a TGB reader we call A asked for your thoughts on making decisions about how and where to live when you're old and single and wow! – you gave us all an excellent conversation with all kinds of good information.

”I thoroughly enjoyed reading it,” emailed A, “and learnt an awful lot from the many comments. I really feel better informed should the need arise for me to decide where to live in the future.”

If you missed that post, you can catch up here.

Now, A has written again with a different kind of query:

” friend is 89 and lives happily and independently alone - her son is almost continuously annoyed by her behaviour,” writes A.

“She likes to have fairy lights around her garden and he wants them taken down straight after Christmas. The other day she said, 'He wants me to get rid of all my clutter and I don't want to!'

“She says she's glad he doesn't live near so she only has to be on 'best behaviour' two or three times a year.”

One of the great, good things about getting old, as many of us at this blog often repeat, is being able to do whatever we want without concern for how others might judge us or what they might say. But it is a different kind of thing, I suppose, when an adult child finds fault.

Unless this woman is incompetent – I'm sure A would have told me if that were so – I don't see how the son has a right to tell her anything at all about how to live. But, apparently, she rearranges her life when he visits. To appease him? To keep arguments to a minimum? To help maintain family peace?

I picture A's friend running around hiding garden lights and all her favorite things when the son is due to arrive and why should anyone have to do that with their own home. She's 89, for god's sake.

If it were me, he'd get away with complaining about those fairy lights only once – but do keep in mind that as regards children and grandchildren, I have none so what I know about such relationships is less than would fit into a thimble.

Here's what A is wondering:

”Do any of your readers 'clean up their act' when the family visit only to revert to their old and comforting ways as soon as they wave them off?!”


I will come by an read comments later, but must say this.

My treasures and life time collections are not clutter. To each there own.

There's a point where a home becomes uncleanable. I spent 7 months clearing out my mother's apartment.

As you age it becomes impossible to do that 'quick tidy' before guests arrive. It either has to be pristine all the time, or they live with your inner slob.

However with regard to fairy lights, these were installed in trees in Sydney Australia's Hyde Park on some grand occasion other than Christmas.

Everyone loved them so much, they became permanent.

Heck no! My kids dare not say much about my stuff, but then I have only the minimum since I got rid of a lot of "stuff" when we moved to the condo. What a relief not to have all that clutter.
But, hey, people should do what they want about their stuff. After all most all will be "in the same boat" someday. Altho' 7 months to clear someone's home leaves a lot to think about. Dee

I used to dispair over my mother's clutter and I actually still have occasional nightmares about it. I am in the process of downsizing and will eventually move to a smaller place. The 'stuff' I need to deal with is my late husbands. He was a collector. I am not. I like to live simply and no one would accuse me of being messy. My problem is when I visit my children--restraining myself from wanting to clean and tidy.

I had to stop and think about this. I guess I do tidy up some of the clutter before my daughters visit. One is a bit more tolerant of that "lived-in" look (which I love and feel comfortable with) than the other daughter. It must be an effort to keep the peace more than anything else.

Yes we do clean up our act. The weed is stashed away until the family leaves. Also, I try to cuss less and attempt to be civil when one of them wants to talk to Jesus before we eat.

We clean a bit, and declutter before visits from our kids and grands. But since there is only the two of us, our house doesn't get as messy as it did when we had kids around.

On the fussiness of the adult son toward his mother, I'd guess that he learned that fussiness from his parents. Just a guess, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were true.

More on cleaning: our house gets really dusty fast. So I dust before we have guests and other light cleaning. We have a sort of protocol. DH does as much of it as I. So, we can be ready usually in about 30 minutes. What I've learned in life is that no one else likes to look at your (my) clutter.

I do tidy up before visitors if warned but not overly. I see impending company as motivation me to wash up the dishes and do the bathroom no matter who they are. No kids or g-kids or relatives complain, not even about the boxes I haven't emptied in the extra bedroom post-move. There's nothing to trip over either. I don't criticize them either.

I have no big collections, do like decorative boxes, and glass bowls. They are filled with beach glass and other mementos of trips. The grandkids like to open them and check them out, one box has an old view master and some discs in it.

What they watch like hawks is my driving. So I took one of those driving courses, did learn a couple of things. My car is not so tidy inside. Most of it is grandchild detritus, booster seat, toys, and so on. Finger prints on the windows and kid stickers too, sigh. What kind of glue is on those danged stickers? The outside is clean, usually. ;-)

Celia's comments about her car made me smile. I always take the subaru to the car wash after we have been with the grandkids as their carseats seem to leave a pile of cracker crumbs behind and there are smudges on all the windows.

Since I give them "bunnies" to eat in the car, there is often a slew of wrappers that get left behind. I don't care so much about how the outside of my car looks, but the inside, where I sit, needs to be clean and tidy.

Heck no. I expect my son and his family to "clean up their act" when they come see me! I do try to tidy up if i'm expecting an out-of-town sibling that is in the area for a rare visit. And basically I have no other visitors, which is as I like it. My attitude is basically "my home, my rules."

As for the woman with the fairy lights ... every situation/relationship is different. If he's been dominating and brow-beating her for years, neither of them is going to change now. I did wonder if maybe she's financially dependent on him and therefore feels subservient.

If someone is having problems with hoarding, or taking care of day to day activities, kids ARE likely to try and intervene, as well they should. But her son is irritated by fairy lights??!! Really? That sounds like some sort of extreme control issue on his part.

I tidy up whenever anyone is coming over, simply because I can see my mess more clearly then, but hide things? No way. If you don't like it - don't come over.

I laughed out loud at jbinportorford's comment!! While our weed stash dried up years ago, I do tend to watch what I say when I'm around my son so as not to destroy his image of me as perfect Mom. (Hah!)

Tell the son to plan on staying in a motel on future visits :-)

That said, I do think my need to create space (by getting rid of stuff I no longer use) is part of clearing my spirit, soul, mind? - as part of my "work" at this time of life. And it is work!

Great discussion!

The only thing I do before my daughter visits is collect up all the spiders and put them outside, as she is arachnophobic and I don't want her to have to encounter them and get a fright. Clutter isn't an issue as we don't have any (she and her family have far more 'stuff' than we do.)

We all accept each other as we are and nobody has to make any concessions. Except that, like jbinportorford, I try to refrain from using my habitual expletives in front of the grandchildren because the parents made a conscious decision, years ago, that they would watch their own language while their kids were young.

I remember wondering why my mother kept getting rid of things and had no attachment to "things" later in life. Now, as an elder, I find I am the same way. Did a huge declutter one day, after selling my home. I gave away or sold almost everything in it and became a true minimalist, only keeping what I really need. It released me of having to spend all that time taking care of "things," and affords me more time to just enjoy nature and life around me.

I also have peace of mind knowing my 5 kids will not have to go through stuff and possibly fight over things after I'm gone. I bought a small RV and travel with everything I own. This lifestyle is not for everyone and I do think everyone should do what makes them happy and if that means keeping their things, til they go, then their kids should just back off.

Loved jbinportorford's post as well. Some things our kids just do not need to know lest we be judged!

If I were that woman, I would say to my son, "I am 89 and I am not going to live forever. Do you really want to spend our time together arguing about fairy lights and clutter?"

Every time my husband and I start arguing over similarly trivial matters, I remind myself that our time together is not infinite and I shouldn't spend it nattering on about things that don't matter.

When my husband retired three years ago we downsized from a 10-acre property with a big house and barn to a small three-bedroom bungalow in town.

We had two garage sales and got rid of a lot of stuff using online services, but now we find we still have many things that we don't need.

I'm a gardener and I have too many terra cotta containers in the basement, but there is space and having them gives me choice each season. However, when I'm ready to part with them, I will throw a pot party and invite all my hort buddies to come and help themselves to one or several.

My in-laws (who are 87 and 95) have a lot of stuff in their two bedroom condo, but it is kept in a tidy manner, except for all the piles of papers in my father-in-law's study.

My mother-in-law grew up poor and has the collecting bug – there is china, collectable pottery (she used to be a potter), jewelry, a lot of clothing, all kinds of bric-a-brac and antiques, plus many pictures on the walls.

My husband has always been a minimalist and is very tidy, but even he dreads the prospect of going through their things, mostly because quite a few things will have sentimental value to him and he'll be tempted to take them. I'll let it be his problem because we really don't have space for a lot of stuff.

A couple of years ago, when my mother-in-law decided to get rid of a few things – mostly old how-to books that no one would want to keep – my father-in-law was not the least bit supportive. He felt that getting rid of your things before you get ill or die means you are giving up on life.

Since he wouldn't take the books to the dump, and my mother-in-law is too frail to do it by herself, I offered to help. On the appointed day he felt obliged to come to the dump with me!

It was all very odd, but my mother-in-law was happy to create some space. She can't go to a gift shop or art gallery without another little treasure coming home. She hasn't given up on life at all – she just wanted to create space for newer and better stuff.

As long as the clutter does not effect her health the son has no business telling her what she should do. But one has to wonder where he inherited that uptight anal retentive behavior from in the first place. Hmm.

Our house here in the South is much different than our house was in Colorado. Here we are all on one level, in Colorado we had three levels. Here the house is dim within and lacking windows, mainly to keep out the oppressive heat and humidity, while in Colorado every room had large windows and some also had skylights.

Our house here is smaller than the house in Colorado, but since the house in Colorado sold within a week of listing, we had little choice but to move everything here. Since we were also starting a business here it took us several years to get rid of furniture that just didn't fit into this house, same with décor.

Now, I try to look at this place as "new" eyes would see it and I think we still have too much furniture for the space. However, we want desperately to move back to Colorado and we'll try to sell some things prior to the move, mainly for economic reasons, but also because our needs and taste have changed.

The main problem is that we're smokers and our son is not. He doesn't stay overnight at our place since we have no guest-room, but I know the smoke bothers him. It's not whether we smoke while he's here, but the fact that the smoke is in the drapes and on the walls -- I can't re-paint just because he's coming to visit. We try to air the place out to minimize his discomfort and we've even tried to discourage him from spending his money to fly here, but he does want to see us and enjoys his visits and we enjoy seeing him and conversing with him -- after all, it's usually just once a year.

He is the only visitor we have since it is difficult to actually get here -- he has to fly to Nashville and then rent a car to drive a hundred miles to our rural area. You can see why we feel so isolated here and we are eager to move back to Denver once we have settled some tax issues and, hopefully, sell the property and house here and hit the road!

We have "minimized" already, but still have closets to work on, but we are not hoarders or collectors, just smokers.

The Engineer and I are working on getting rid of stuff now, so that neither of us has to deal with that on his or her own.

One good way to rid of stuff, such as technical journals and books, is to offer them to schools or universities.
If the items are accepted, the donor can take an income-tax deduction for his charitable contribution.

Essentially, this is our home, and it's comfortable/suits us. I'm happy for any of my friends and family to visit or stay. I offer the same as I hope they'd offer me: warm hospitality, a clean bed/room and some nice food and wine.

We all have our own standards. I like to keep my home 'clean enough to be sanitary, messy enough for me to be sane'. We have a cleaner for 3 hours once a fortnight. When she comes my partner and I work alongside her, figuring if 9 hours a fortnight is not enough to keep this place clean enough, so be it: because neither of us want to spend more time or energy than that on house work.

If you opened my cupboards (closets) you'd see loads of 'stuff' and, one day, I may get round to clutter clearing. Walking into my garage you'd see more 'stuff' - mostly my daughter's and grandson's (both their homes: pristine!) - our garage has become the repository for things we - read they - 'can't bear to part with or consider part of our heritage'. I can live with this (their) stuff for the time being as it's out of sight. But, we've said, "When we move you must deal with it".

Having cleared my parent's, parent's-in-law and aunt's homes, I know that ploughing through loved-one's possessions is not pleasant. But - back to A's question - I think it is better to support older people to live/enjoy their homes, rather than impose our standards. (There are house clearers, if needed).

And, regards the fairy lights: I had two responses. (1) Outraged: fuck that! If I want fairy lights, I'll have 'em. And (2) Sadness: respect your mother's choice. If they give her pleasure: rejoice and go with it.

I am guessing here, but I wouldn't be surprised if the son has heard horror stories from friends about cleaning out their parents' 3,000 square feet of old newspapers, spare bits of string, cans for "recycling", etc. I spent four months on my own parents' house, and I'm sure my friends have eyed their own Mom and Dad's "collections" with dread ever since. He is imagining how depressing that will be for him to go through it all someday, and he is probably right. It's too bad mom can't see that.

However, he should stay in a hotel if it bugs him that much. Adults are competent until proven otherwise to make their own lifestyle decisions. There is a lot about being our age that isn't a ton of fun, and if fairy lights or any other possessions give his mother some daily joy, it's mean-spirited to hector her about "clutter." It's too bad the son can't see that.

So they're both right. But their time together is probably limited, so it's too bad it's so hard for them to respect each other's perspective.

We're currently in a situation where we're temporarily sharing a two bedroom apartment with one of our grown sons, while we're all in the process of moving into different phases of our lives. We have dogs and cats and bicycles and mounds of clothes and laptops and all the stuff of life in every corner of every space. And it's all fine. Nobody cares about any of it. Personally I love it. I'm soaking up every moment of this brief time with my youngest kid, just like when he actually was a kid and lived with us all the time. Pretty soon everybody will move on and we'll never have this intimate side-by-side-ness again in this lifetime. But that's just me. And I'm always acutely aware of how lucky I am to have kids I really like. Pure dumb luck, like so much of life.

Regarding A's friend...

1) I learned fairly early in life that if you let people push you around, they unfortunately will. Therefore you have to push back. Not necessarily hard, but hard enough so they know they've crossed the line. Some people are too gentle or too timid or too lacking in self-respect to ever do this. I've noticed this because I have quite a few of these people in my family :) And they all get pushed around, to varying degrees. Maybe A's friend is one of these gentle people. Or maybe she's just intimidated by her son and completely ferocious with the rest of the world....I kind of hope so.

2) Parent/child relationships are immensely complicated and emotionally loaded. Even the really good, healthy, happy ones. Every powerful emotion that's ever passed between parent and child, from the moment of birth, is still there, waiting to be triggered at a moment's notice (something I didn't fully realize until my own mother was dying and I found myself feeling exactly as I would have when I was 5 years old...howling with grief like an abandoned orphan). So it's not to be wondered at that sometimes both parents and children behave in bizarre and seemingly unreasonable ways. Who knows what's really going on there under the surface. Could be almost anything

3) The messy vs neat thing is built in, from birth. It's not taught, it's inherent. You can have incredibly anally-neat parents and incredibly messy, completely oblivious, who-cares-who-even-notices-the-mess children. I know this because my husband is one of these, having been raised by the two tidiest people I've ever met, yet he's exactly the opposite (even though his brothers take after their neat-as-a-pin parents). In my own birth family, my parents were middle of the roadish on the neatness scale, while my elder brother is Mr Neat & Tidy, my sister is Who-Cares-I-like-my-Stuff-around-Me and I'm somewhere in between. This is fabulous really because it means one less thing that parents need to beat themselves up are who they are mostly.

I really hope A's friend gets to keep her fairy lights. Fairy lights are awesome, all year round.

We moved to our current single-story manufactured home almost 2 years ago and got rid of a lot of stuff then. However, "stuff happens" continually so it's a constant battle. I try to keep it down and maintain a reasonably neat dwelling place even though we don't have a lot of visitors. I'm not fond of x-treme clutter personally.

I'm seriously considering adding to my "final letter" a sentence reading: "Here's the phone number for 'Got Junk?' and $500 towards the cost of hauling off everything in the place!" I wouldn't have to worry for the duration of my lifetime about keeping/donating/
tossing, and I think the family would be overjoyed at NOT having to sort through it all.

What changes when the kids visit:

1) No skinny-dipping at night in the pool

2) Close bedroom door at night

The one important comment I want to add is "child-proofing" the house to a reasonable level when young grandkids visit. This is a matter of safety. And the # 1 item on this list is unloading and locking any guns you have in the home. I have read too many tragic stories recently about grandchildren or visiting kids who have found loaded guns and shot themselves or others. Kids are too curious about guns and they will find them! We don't have any guns but many older people do... Can you imagine how they would feel to have a child die because they forgot to lock them away?

How appropriate. I am busy today preparing the house for my son's visit this weekend. The place is reasonably clean all the time, with just 2 of us usually, but we do have a dog who tends to smell. So, a bath is on the agenda, as well as putting away the clutter to make room for his and his wife's things. Yes, we do clean up for our kids, but not hide our "real life" from them or try to appease them. It's just what we do when we have guests.

As for A and her son, it's possible the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree" applies to the father. Perhaps she's indulging in whimsey she couldn't enjoy when she was living with her husband.

After the first time, perhaps she brings out the lights just to annoy him. That's what I'd do, but then, I don't have kids.

I used to clean like a demon before a visitor came, even if the visitor was family. I felt I needed to keep my image and to convince my children that I was doing okay living alone. (Fear of being stuck in a nursing home prompted that.)

Two minutes after my children and grandchildren unloaded their cars my house looked like a tornado had gone through because their stuff was dropped anyplace there was space.

I finally got smart and quit that nonsense and waited until they left to clean, because, by then, it really needed it .

Now I no longer have the energy to clean like that so I have learned to like the lived-in look.

I would love to pass her house with fairy-lights. It would make me smile every time. How about telling him night lighting is a matter of safety? As for the rest, one person's clutter is another person's memories, especially if she is living alone. As long as she isn't falling over stuff, he should be proud of her independence.

I relate to jbinportorford on most of her actions. Our weed is long gone.I do cool my language,around younger grandchildren, which really isn't too bad but tends to heat up during election seasons) My daughter is a minimalist and I tend to believe that walls should not be empty and flat surfaces seem to set off small "set arounds". And I too cringe at their "blessings" from Jesus and our father. I keep my mouth firmly quiet but sometimes I ask to do the Blessing and I say "We are grateful for family and friends and a fortunate life." And I mean it. And I confess most of my rooms are always presentable (I live alone) except for kitchen area. I don't worry about it.

When babies come/came I did secure the house in many of the same ways a new parent secures their home for toddlers. It is just common sense. I do cook differently for children than adults and pace the days activities for them. Adult children can certainly make comments on my lifestyle, but after I consider it, I make the final decision and they can accept it or move on!

When my husband moved out without warning a few weeks after his retirement and took our young adult son with him, their only reason was they "didn't like the way I kept the house." I ran a successful business from the house, did all the cooking, cleaning, yard work, etc. and both had refused to be responsible for any of it (husband was raised in a misogynist family).

Husband no longer needed his "at-home employee"(me) and son went along as it was easier than having responsibilities living with me.

I divorced, moved on with my life. It's very full with activities and I love the freedom to do what I want when I want. I told them since they chose to leave the home I made for them they are not welcome here. I live as I like (somewhat cluttered but clean)and am working on gradually downsizing.

We three have remained friends and family, often get together other places but neither has been in MY house for ten years. They made their choices, I made mine and we're fine with that.

Meggie, three cheers for you.
You're one hell of a woman!

There is enough wisdom in a typical TGB commentary to float a battleship, which is probably the worst mixed metaphor possible. I love jbinportorford's post because I used to be the one who had to watch her language or opinions when an uptight relative visited, but failed too often to do so. By the way, if the opportunity to visit Port Orford doesn't make his/her family do the habit changing, I don't know what would.

I keep (I think) a reasonably clean and attractive home. I tidy as I go along because if I let things get out of hand they are beyond my physical capabilities and I have to hire help. I admit, however, to being with those who have not cleaned out their "stuff." I am leaving a file with info on several estate liquidators, though,and I'm sure my son (who has power of attorney) won't wait more than five minutes before calling one.

The only visitor I have now is said son, who comes out from Iowa for ten days or so twice a year. He is as tidy as I am and always makes his bed and puts things away before catching his early flight out. That gives me several months before I actually have to change his bed and put fresh towels in his bathroom.

If you begin to wonder, as I did, how other people live just visit
and compare them to your own house...

I have to say that our house has some flaws, but we're 'way above average, if the photos are considered "average."

What the hell are fairy lights ?

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