General Etiquette > Family and Children

maintaining physical boundaries without sounding cruel

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BG: DH and I have been married 17 years. My MIL and I have always been friendly, but not especially close. This comes from both sides: I'm kind of quiet, and she has always been a bit abrasive, but not necessarily mean or rude. We just never really connected.
End BG

Now MIL has Alzheimer's disease. I can handle the forgetfulness and her discomfort outside of her routine. The hard part for me is her total change in personality. She has now become very touchy-feely and extremely sentimental. I'm having trouble with this. She cries when she sees me and talks about how she prays for the soon-to-arrive baby (this conversation is repeated every five minutes), then she hugs me over and over, strokes my hair, etc. I'm really not comfortable with this.

DH doesn't quite see it because he mostly interacts with FIL. I swear the two of them are in their own little world and blind to everything else when they're together. I on the other hand have had to lock the doors to my bathroom (which is only accessible through my bedroom, and well away from the rest of the house) just to keep her from walking in while I'm in there if she knows that's where I am. I've started to distance myself during visits.

I need to find the right words to talk to DH about this so he at least knows how I feel, but it is already hard for him watching his mom deteriorate. I've taken a few tries at this, but I must not have been blunt enough.

I certainly don't expect to make MIL act the way she used to or be anything other than who she is now, but at the same time I don't want the invasion of my personal space.

What options do I have?

People with Alzheimer's often show this kind of 'shadowing' behavior (following you into the bathroom, being right behind you), but other than locking the bathroom door, I don't think there's a lot you can do about it. Depending on how far along she is, and what she enjoys, could you give her a task to complete, say folding laundry or sorting things, so that you can have some time to yourself?

The repeating etc is frustrating but it's here to stay. Deciding on stock answers for each of the most common repeated questions and just automatically giving those may be less stress for you than investing in it like it's normal conversation. Only for the repeated stuff! Meaningful give and take will become less and less over time, treasure it,. However, you can only answer the same question 50 times or so without starting to feel aggravated. Find out what the seed of concern or fear is behind the question, and devise a stock answer that relieves it and repeat, repeat, repeat.

As for the touchy-feely aspect, that's tough...could you redirect her by returning some of the touching? Pat her shoulder as you gently direct her hands off you, or squeeze her shoulder a bit as you guide her away from you to a chair? Take her hands off your hair, give them a nice long squeeze.  Finesse out of it and redirect? Because I don't think you will be able to stop it, it's where she is now and you'll have it as long as it lasts. It may not last for the duration of the disease. I don't mind the touching, but I don't handle the floods of tears well...there isn't anything you can do, the reason is not clear, I say things to make MIL feel better or perhaps try and make her laugh, but it is uncomfortable.

Edited to change 'stick answers' to 'stock answers' as I originally intended  :)

I had a colleague, who in a previous career had worked with ALZ patients.  When a dear neighbor (DN) started exhibiting such signs (repeating the same little stories every few minutes, the loss of social boundaries, etc.)  my colleague told me that they are reverting to a childlike behavior and to a degree, you can treat them like a child even though it means saying things you would never say to another adult. 

For example, my DN would knock on my door and ask to come in for a visit three or four times a day; she was doing this to everyone in the neighborhood.  Then she would see some bananas in a bowl and ask for one or see some photos on the counter and start browsing through them.  Things that adults just. don't. do.  Loss of boundaries. 

My colleague said to treat the situation as if a small neighbor child knocked on the door and asked if my small child could come out to play.  It is easy to say matter of factly, "no, little Johnnie cannot come outside right now."  It was not easy to tell my DN that now was not a good time for a visit and to just quietly close the door, but the alternative was not workable for me.   

It is up to you to vocalize the boundaries over and over and over.  So, if your MIL starts to touch you, just respond with, "Don't touch/hug me.  Don't touch my hair now."  And gently remove her hand.  Always use a matter of fact voice, your normal conversational tone, no need to be harsh or cruel or express anger or impatience.  And expect to have to rinse, lather and repeat.  It will take some patience on your part, but just think of your MIL's unfortunate situation as though she was a small child who has not learned social boundaries yet. 

You can set boundaries, but do remember, those boundaries will not be remembered.  The MIL you knew is no longer the MIL you have and you have to adjust to that, and I know personally how difficult it can be.  My grandfather went from being one of the kindest, most gentle man you ever would meet  to a screaming, violent person we didn't know.  A co worker I was extremely close to and my next door neighbor went from intelligent, vibrant women into paranoid angry women.  My friends mom went from a happy go lucky lady into a woman who sat in a shair all day and cried.  It is a horrible disease for those around the them.  While it is easy to get angry and frustrated with them, it will get you no where because they just don't understand.  POD to AvidReader about gently removing her hands and telling her, as you would a toddler "please do not touch".  Also, you say your DH and his dad are not acting aware..they are but many choose to ignore the signs and behaviors (yes, dad I am looking at step mother is showing all the signs too and he just ignores it!).  You need to have a conversation with your DH now about her on going care if you don't want to be the one to do it (it does, unfortunately fall to a woman family member most of the time). 

Give. Tolerate. Endure the discomfort.

It was not idly that they used to call this "second childhood." Her fears and feeling of needing comfort by closeness may not be rational to you or me, but they are real to her. God forbid it should happen, but someday you may need someone to do the same for you.


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