A year ago, once my siblings and I had left home, my parents moved to the other side of the country. They have made a beautiful home and love their new, wild surroundings. My dad still works, but Mum retired early last year and is now struggling and becoming increasingly unhappy and isolated. She is still young, in her 50s, and thought that, although it would take time to integrate, this move was nothing she couldn’t handle. She has tried joining clubs, to meet people and integrate into her new community but without any luck.
She still knows no one despite her best efforts. The area they have moved to is closed and unfriendly to strangers. She is many miles from her old friends and family, stuck all day, every day with only pets for company.
She is intelligent, artistic, loyal and funny as hell – a truly amazing person. She has always had lovely friends and been happy and busy. It is breaking my heart to watch her endure loneliness and so many knockbacks. Recently, when I chat to her, I have noticed her increasingly low mood – she jokes that she feels she is going a bit crazy from the quiet and loneliness. After many years working and raising a family, she should be finally free to enjoy herself. Unfortunately, my siblings and I do not live nearby so we cannot pop in for tea – we all keep in close contact by phone. My dad doesn’t understand her position as he is out at work all day. He is kept busy with his job and cannot understand how she can be so unhappy when living in such a beautiful place and without the pressures of work. He is at a loss to know how he can change things and feels guilty and sad for how she feels. How can we help her? It has got so bad that they are considering moving again to a different area – something I am increasingly in favour of. Friendship and enjoyment are far more important than a big fancy house.
Your mum sounds amazing and it also sounds as if you have a great relationship with her.
I think it is hard to deal with retirement, all the children leaving home and moving to a different part of the country all at the same time. That is a lot to contend with. A friend once likened the three areas of life – love, work, home – to a stool. You can take a bit of wobble on one “leg”, but if two or more are out of kilter you are in real danger of toppling over. It is a good simile for not changing too much in one go.
Rose Persson, psychoanalytic psychotherapist (bpc.org.uk), says: “Retirement is a process requiring emotional and practical adjustment. Busy people can often come unstuck when they hit retirement. It can also bring up any unresolved issues. All those people who have strong coping mechanisms, which are the very things that make them successful, can find that, in the space/freedom [and gap] of retirement and with no immediate battles to fight, difficulties may begin to surface.”
We all think we are going to love not doing very much, and some people do, but, for others, having work, or something to do, makes everything else much more enjoyable. You need the to-do list as something to kick against. Persson and I wonder if there is a reason your parents moved to where they did, or if it was picked at random. And who instigated the move?
Of course your parents can move again, but – and this is important – Persson counsels against this until your mum works out what she really wants. Otherwise moving may not give her what she wants, either. “Before your parents make any move, your mum really needs to understand herself a bit better,” she says.
I also wonder – kindly – if your mum has always done what other people wanted her to, and if she has always defined herself through her roles, as a mum, as a wife, in her job (what did she do? Did she enjoy work? Did she have to take retirement?). When you define yourself through external factors (and we all do, to some extent), when those factors change, it can feel as if we don’t know who we are any more. What makes your mum feel good? What gives her confidence?
Making friends can be hard. “You make friends,” Persson suggests, “through doing something together: for example, the school run, work. Just turning up at something once a week or once a month isn’t the easiest way to make friends.”
It is the regular contact that knits you together.
“Has your mum tried volunteer work, or joining a mentoring programme?” asks Persson. I also wonder if she could volunteer at the local primary school, not so much to make friends but to give your mum a routine, a sense of being needed.
My gut instinct is that it is early days for your mum. I think if she can stabilise herself and discover what makes her feel good, that will be a good first step. If she is still very unhappy, then I think your mum and dad really need to talk about doing something to make your mum happier – whether that be moving or something else (going back to work? Is that an option?).
Any other readers who have been in similar situations, do write in.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 16 June 2017.