Your Nightly Hour of Screaming

Each evening, after work, my husband yells at his mom for an hour.

My mother-in-law is over 90 years old and has gradually increased her inactivity over the last 10 years until she has reached the point where she can’t get out of chair easily or walk – even with her walker – or use the toilet unassisted. My husband and his sisters are furious because she has let this happen to herself. We’ve had many arguments with her about how it endangers her, limits her life, and – most worrying – puts an undue burden on her husband. But a cognitive decline has accompanied the physical decline and, in her mind, today is the first day that she has become inactive and it is, therefore, not as big a deal as everyone is fussing about.

My theory – supported only by my own observations – is that she started this when her mind started failing as a way to take control of something, anything. Namely, her husband who, at that point, was still highly independent and made the decision one day to purchase a new car without consulting her, demonstrating in her mind that she wasn’t needed. He is still far more independent than she is, still driving (although I think he shouldn’t), still making business decisions (ditto), still using the internet (ditto!), although caring for her has started to wear him down physically and mentally.

This stubborn refusal to move is not uncommon in the elderly. My own mother, in her 70s, is doing something similar. In her case, it comes less from needing to control someone else (although my mother often uses things like this to control her daughters), but from a fear that arose after a series of health scares. She sleeps in, sits in the living room (napping) until breakfast. Sits in the dining room (napping) after breakfast, then moves to “her chair” in the living room where she sits checking the media-stream on her phone (napping) or watching TV (napping) until lunch. Then she moves back the dining room and, after eating, has a little nap. If she has to go to PT, maybe she gets dressed or takes a shower; otherwise, maybe not. She doesn’t talk to people on the phone, refuses to see friends, lives in her own, safe little world, where nothing changes and nothing happens.

But anyway, back to my husband yelling at his mom. Several months ago, my mother-in-law was prescribed physical therapy, which she did because no one gave her a choice. But once the formal therapy ended, she stopped doing the exercises and went back to sitting in her chair. My sister-in-law and her husband are already stretched to the limit, so my husband — who use to be a personal trainer – offered to do a daily Skype session to walk his mom through her PT every night. And, to both their credit, they have done this daily for about six weeks now.

Skype being something beyond his dad’s capabilities, my brother-in-law sets it up for them and then steps away while my husband walks her through the drill. You can see the decline in both my mother-in-law and my father-in-law in that they have been doing the exact same exercises daily for six weeks, and can’t remember where to begin or what comes next. But they follow their son’s instructions and do it. My mother-in-law counts each rep (my husband insists because it forces her to breathe) but she often gets distracted by a niece or nephew or cat, or spare thought, and loses count. When she restarts, she sometimes starts over at 1 and does an extra set of reps (my husband, knowing she would argue if he pushed her to do a third set, doesn’t stop her from getting a little extra exercise in).

She’s pretty faithful with the sitting exercises. But, when it comes time to stand and walk, she runs through the full gamut of resistance: I’m tired. I’m in pain. I can’t do any more. If there are people in the room, people who might feel sorry for her and give her a break, she turns up the whining. Her latest ploy is that she has to go to the bathroom, which you can’t argue with, although my husband has her walk a couple of extra laps around the living room when she rejoins.

The biggest challenge is the maximum volume on the laptop on their end – especially when they are moving around the room, they cannot hear my husband’s coaching. First, because they are both stone deaf and my mother-in-law refuses to wear her hearing aids. Second, because when they are walking laps around the couch, they can’t see my husband’s face on the monitor, so can’t do a little unconscious lip-reading. Third, because she doesn’t want to hear him telling her to do just one more lap. So he has to speak up, loudly – yell, really. If it were in person, he could coax her along but because they are doing this remotely, he has to scream at her just to make her hear. (My apologies to the neighbors.)

But the two of them continue to play this game every evening and it is paying off. Although she does not realize it, she is doing four more laps now than she was a month ago. And she stands up from her chair without leaning on her walker and putting pressure on her arms – which is good because she has managed to put so much pressure on her arms that the bone around the pins in her left elbow has crumbled.

And so we continue. Two days ago, she made the excuse that they would have a house-guest for the long weekend and she would not be able to work out either Sunday or Monday. My husband arranged to do yesterday’s workout before the guest arrived and my mother-in-law was so angry that she gave him the silent treatment during the workout (up until the point where he made her walk and she insisted she had to go to the bathroom, during which she forgot she wasn’t speaking to him, and came back with all her usual excuses about being tired and whatever).

Today he gave her the day off. She had earned it but, in the past, when given a day off, she refused to restart the daily pattern. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

She resents his persistence but I am impressed by his commitment to give 60-90 minutes every night, to do work that is, at the least, boring and, at the most, screamingly frustrating. It shows his true love for her.

If only I could get him to do the same for my mom…

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