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Carolyn Hax: Does ‘full-fledged recluse’ mother-in-law need help?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I are torn over his mother, between believing she needs help and accepting that she can live her strange life the way she wants. She’s in her late 80s and has, in the last three years in particular, blown past hermit into full-fledged recluse. She leaves the house only to go to the grocery and the hair salon. More times than not she refuses visitors, including family. Although she is physically capable and has a brand-new car, she announced she will no longer drive outside of her town — this includes not coming to any family functions. To “visit” her during the height of the pandemic, we drove up and stood in the front yard to speak to her through a window. She is appalled that people have resumed going about their business without masks.

This week, when my husband offered to come pick her up — an hour and a half drive away — and take her another hour and a half further to see her only sister before a serious surgery, she refused.

Some of this is pandemic-related, some of it is more long-standing. Three years ago, when her husband died, she refused any visitors, which seemed odd and sad, but we wrote it off to her style of grieving — except she is still behaving this way. Looking further back, her husband worked in construction, leaving her by herself for hours each day in a rural home with no neighbors within a mile. She gleefully recalls how, when the kids were small, she would unplug the TV, tell them it was broken, and send them out to play — and lock the door. She had, and has, no friends save the sister she most recently refused to go visit.

Do you think this is just her personality, or does she need intervention?

— Torn

Tell us: What's your favorite Carolyn Hax holiday column?

Torn: I don’t see any signs she needs “intervention,” and I don’t know how she can be any clearer about not wanting it.

· Her grocery-shopping and hair appointments prove she’s neither unable nor unwilling to go out for essentials: food, hygiene, baseline social contact.

· A woman who locks her children outside to steal some solitude sounds like the least surprising candidate ever for turning down visits from family.

· A decision by a nearly 90-year-old driver to limit herself to short, local (familiar) trips sounds eminently reasonable. We’d all be wise to respect our limits, reassess them periodically as we age, and adjust our habits accordingly.

· Her pandemic strategy might be why she’s almost 90.

· And she’s not wrong about the masks, since they didn’t stop being helpful — generally speaking, we just collectively declared them more annoying than they’re worth to us now, and left the medically vulnerable to fend for themselves.

· A three-hour round trip to visit her sister is no breezy little jaunt. The drive, the visit, and the return add up to a lot of social exposure all at once for someone who has not exactly been cagey about her preference for solitude. Add in the wear of travel and it could easily, logically, have been too daunting for her.

· For her entire life (by your description) she has sought comfort in solitude — so to me the real shock after her husband’s death would have been for her to welcome the embrace of others.

My goal was to rebut your concerns point-by-point, but in the process I developed respect for your mother-in-law. Perhaps only someone who isn’t her child could say this, but we should all be so clear-eyed about our own needs and ensuring they’re met.

Because life is a moving target, it’s possible she will need some form of intervention by the time this column sees daylight. (Or not, for years.) But that intervention will be emotionally gruesome for all involved if you keep approaching it through the lens of the needs, expectations and world view you deem normal. Forget that her life is “strange.” Her life is her life and it’s the E on the flipping eye chart in terms of what works for her.

So if she develops challenges to independent living, then relatives showing up on her doorstep — or moving her in with them — belong on the last-resort list. A wearable medical alert button is likely to suit her much better. A system of calling, texting, or emailing (whatever she reaches for most readily) to check in at points of the day or week would honor her need for space. A neighbor or hired local caregiver can be on-call for emergencies, allowing efficient drop-ins vs. extended visits amid hours-long round-trip drives. Meals on Wheels exists to preserve the dignity of aging in place. As long as she’s competent, she can tell you herself if she wants something different from this arm’s-length care.

Thinking it’s about your way vs. hers is what has you “torn” — so let that go and commit to a “her life, her way” plan. Let loose, even, and glory in how plain she’s made things for you.

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