Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
I moved into a new upstairs apartment five months ago. I made the mistake of helping my wheelchair-bound neighbor, “Stella,” with her groceries during my move. Stella had her bag break in the parking lot after she got off the bus. I put down my boxes and ran to help with her items and then put them up in her kitchen. Stella told me about how she was alone in the world and on a fixed income. I told Stella I would be happy to run to the grocery store for her since I go once a week. Stella calls me every day now. She has problems with her doctors, her bills, and for anything and everything, she calls me. I have tried to be kind and helpful—but now I need help.
I should have set firm boundaries earlier, but she is a little old lady, and I was lonely in a new city. But I am not her daughter or her granddaughter. I am okay with running to the grocery store or being an emergency contact or coming over for tea and a chat—but not this. Adult services are useless. Stella’s life isn’t in danger, and she had enough income to be disqualified from the majority of services. She isn’t cruel or abusive or mean. She is old, scared, and alone in the world. But she is suffocating me.
My mom died when I was young, and my dad left me to me raised by my grandfather while he went off to have a brand-new family with his mistress. My grandfather walked me down the aisle and died in his sleep four months later. My marriage didn’t make it a year since my husband cheated on me with his ex. Apparently bad taste in men is inheritable. Please don’t recommend therapy. It would be nice, but I can’t afford it, insurance doesn’t pay, and Stella is old, disabled, and alone. I don’t want to hurt her. Help!
— Deep End
Dear Deep End,
There’re two things going on here: Stella is relying on you in a way that is starting to feel oppressive, and some of your stuff is being brought up to the surface because of your relationship with her. Neither of these things is your fault, but they are separate issues that have somewhat separate solutions.
You feel guilty because you’re kind and you want to help, but I also suspect that you have a stronger feeling of obligation to her because of your history. So, first, you might want to do some thinking on your own about what relationship you want to have with your older neighbor and how that relationship can feed you, energetically, as well as help her. Maybe you get an emotional boost from grabbing her groceries or extending another kindness. That’s great! But you should pay attention to the places where that boost starts to ebb and your kindness becomes a chore. This isn’t to say that we should do nice things for other people simply because it makes us feel good, but rather that you are allowed to remember your own humanity and your own needs here. This may not be simple work and you may not get the balance right straight away, but learning to consider yourself and your capacity is going to really help you going forward.
Now, as for what’s happening on the other side of the wall with Stella, I think it’s time for a kind but direct conversation about boundaries. It’s not too late to set them. Stella is an elder, but she’s also an adult whom you can talk to as such. If the constant calls, the bill questions, the doctors are too much, tell her. Kindly explain that you’re happy to help where you can and you’re grateful to have her as a neighbor, but that some of the things she’s asking you to help with are overwhelming you. Consider asking her to call a little less so that you can have the capacity to do the things you need to in life and can be fully available to her in other ways. Ask her if she has any other friends who she can confer with, and if she doesn’t, suggest that she seek out community, be it at a community center, through volunteer work, or through a house of worship. If you have the capacity, consider helping her look for places where she can meet other people.
I hope this doesn’t come across as callous. I know that many seniors suffer from isolation and that that problem compounds itself as other problems mount. It’s not an easy fix and it’s certainly not as simple as saying “Stella, go make a friend.” She’s lucky to have you. But by pushing the boundary back just a bit, you can also potentially empower her.
I’m a 43-year-old man and recently began my teaching career. I was a late-in-life college student and earned my degree at 38. Teaching these students made me wonder about those I went to school with who I lost contact with. A little background: I went to four different high schools in three states and discovered through research I had a 30 percent chance of dropping out, but never thought of doing that. I have a single yearbook from my graduating year, but never got a book for grades 9-to-11. I decided to do research and received one from my junior year, and I’m waiting on information for my freshman and sophomore year. I thought about what everyone is doing and thought of doing a YouTube series about where they are. However, I’m torn. I have not told my partner my plan yet because he thinks I like to be the center or main character of activities, and I’m trying to move away from that because I don’t like others feeling they don’t matter. I know this would center on me as the person who went to all these schools, but I want to use it as a platform for them to express where they have gone in life. Let them tell their stories, and see the different paths people travel after school. I’m documenting a list of students from my senior and junior year, and I’m still really good friends with students I went to school with, but I want to make contact with some I haven’t seen since high school. I think I am looking for advice to know if this is a healthy endeavor or if I should leave the past in the past.
— Journey to the Past
Dear Journey to the Past,
It sounds like your intentions are pure and that the central question of this series—what happened to these people with whom I shared an experience—is not really about you. This kind of inquiry animates all kinds of shows, from Encore!, the Disney show that reunites the casts of high school musicals, to the podcast Heavyweight, which revisits seminal moments in the pasts of a different person each episode looking for answers. Narratively, it seems promising and it’s something you’re interested in so, if others are willing, you should do it.
I’m concerned about your partner’s assessment of you, though. It feels uncharitable. It sounds like you might agree with what he said, but I think there’s a difference between being the main character and being the convener. Is it possible that you’re someone who likes to make community? Is it possible that other people actually feel seen and heard around you? I don’t know, but I think it’s worth considering because your letter doesn’t sound self-centered. It sounds curious about the lives of others. We all have questions about ourselves, our lives, and the people who pass through our lives. I think it’s fine to ask those questions. Just don’t be too disappointed if some of the folks you contact do want to leave high school in the past.
I have a great relationship that COVID is threatening to end. We have 15 blissful years together, but have had knock-down drag-outs over COVID. I am pro-science, wore my mask, have four shots. I got COVID and it was lousy, but I recovered. I followed the rules and even more at her insistence. Live music is a part of my identity, but she said I cannot go to concerts next fall and winter—from October until February! That’s ridiculous. Certainly, if we get smashed with a new variant, things may change, but it seems insane to plan on shutting myself up like a veal for half a year out of paranoia. She says that her compromise is spring shows are still fine, and I am inflexible. I say that no shows for half a year that is still half a year away is inflexibility. What do you think?
— Sick of COVID
Dear Sick of COVID,
Look, I don’t want to get into the weeds of amateur epidemiology here, but I have to say that this fall/winter prohibition feels like putting the cart before the horse. I suppose I understand the rationale—there have been spikes in colder months—but as I write, it’s not yet June. Let’s get to Labor Day first. But, again, I am just a lay person reading the tea leaves of the CDC website. I can’t tell you if saying no live shows six months from now is ridiculous (I mean, I guess it depends on who’s playing the show). What I can say is that ultimatums and edicts don’t work well in relationships, and there is probably something else other than COVID at the root of this that is workable without the intervention of Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Your partner has a vigilance about COVID that is born out of a well-earned anxiety. I’m curious what the root fear is because making proclamations about a hypothetical event six months from now feels like it’s coming from nowhere. Does she worry about your safety? Hers? What are your other COVID fights about? Basically, what does she think is going to happen? My suspicion is that while you may not see eye-to-eye about how safe the world is at a given moment, there might be ways of alleviating or lessening her anxiety with more information and less tension. For instance, since tests are more widely available now, would it make her feel better if you tested after going to a concert? Moreover, what is her ideal way of living? You may not want to live that way, but right now you’re getting a lot of “no” and I’m curious what she’s yessing.
Perhaps of paramount importance: This is an attempt to know the unknowable and, as such, is futile. Whether you talk more about the root of the anxiety or not, you should shut down conversations about what’s going to happen in six months. You two should work on being happy in the moment. It’s summer and you can go to concerts; she can do what she needs to do. Is this issue going to go away by fall? No, probably not. But if you’re already in a place where you’re having big fights about this epidemic, you don’t need to generate new conflicts.
Catch up on this week’s Prudie.
More Advice From Care and Feeding
My 13-year-old son is, for lack of a better term, “extremely online.” He has a few social media accounts that I have the password to, but have never really looked into his behavior on those because we never had a reason to (my husband and I believe that once our children have earned our trust, there needs to be a specific reason in order for us to check up on them). Well, the reason has arrived. It appears he’s been bullying another boy at school via one of the social media apps, calling him “retarded” and making jokes about the other boy’s mother. I am, of course, horrified. I checked his other accounts and it turns out my kid is pretty much a massive troll….