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Dear Carolyn: My mom has al­ways been a won­der­ful baker and has tra­di­tion­ally brought desserts to ev­ery fam­ily func­tion. How­ever, as she reaches her 70s, her bak­ing has taken a turn for the worse and ev­ery­thing she makes is pretty aw­ful. I feel aw­ful be­cause I know she loves to bake but the desserts are ined­i­ble.

I’ve tried ev­ery­thing from say­ing I’d pre­fer store-bought to save her time, to say­ing that we’re try­ing to be healthy and ab­stain from dessert, to fi­nally say­ing that al­though we sym­pa­thize that she can’t have gluten, we’d pre­fer to make a gluten-full dessert be­cause we don’t find the gluten-free items worth the calo­ries. Noth­ing de­ters her and the aw­ful desserts keep com­ing, along with awk­ward mo­ments for those who feel com­pelled to eat them.

This ques­tion is about whether it’s bet­ter for me to con­tinue be­ing blunt or just learn to bite my tongue, but I’d also like your ad­vice on gen­er­ally how I should re­act as she ages. Feel­ing like she’s con­tribut­ing is so im­por­tant to her; how can I help her feel dig­ni­fied and like she has pur­pose? She was se­ri­ously ill a few years ago and de­spon­dent over the idea of not be­ing of use to any­one. I have told her that her pres­ence in our lives is enough, but she doesn’t think it is.

I am see­ing this now with an­other el­derly rel­a­tive who keeps be­moan­ing that she might as well die be­cause she is a bur­den and can’t do any­thing for any­one any­more. How can the younger gen­er­a­tion man­age this with­out be­ing pa­tron­iz­ing or de­cep­tive?

Name With­held

Dear With­held: This is a sad chap­ter in any fam­ily, the long (if you’re lucky) or abrupt good­bye to beloved mem­bers and the roles they play in your lives.

It’s even sad­der for peo­ple who have ap­par­ently never heard of cheese­cake. Ooh. Or fudge. Your mother is barely 70, if not still in her 60s, yes? This is so not “el­derly.” I re­al­ize ill­ness gets the last word on vi­tal­ity, not age, but your de­sire not to pa­tron­ize her can take root in the fact that she’s at the youngest end of old. So it’s time to tweak her role in the fam- ily, not phase it out.

I mean, se­ri­ously – you’re just tweak­ing recipes at this point.

Ad­just­ments, con­ve­niently, are what good fam­i­lies are good at. We’re all chang­ing with time, not just the ones at the older end of the scale. Kids turn into adults. Re­cip­i­ents be­come providers be­come re­cip­i­ents. Peo­ple be­come care­givers, then need care them­selves, then be­come care­givers again, and with any luck ev­ery­one brings dessert. Flex­i­bil­ity is so im­por­tant you should set a place for it at the ta­ble.

If you’re wor­ried about how to turn the idea of flex­i­bil­ity into words and ac­tions, then look to your own his­tory. How have you spo­ken and acted in the past? Have you been blunt, wry, soft-spo­ken, slap­stick, in­spi­ra­tional­mot­toey, ar­row-straight, ac­com­mo­dat­ing, what? Any ad­just­ment you make to your in­ter­ac­tions with your mom will sound best (and, again, the least pa­tron­iz­ing) in your own voice. So a his­tor­i­cally com­i­cally blunt you would of­fer a fudge cheese­cake recipe to your mom as, “Let’s try for gag-free gluten-free.”

With, of course, care­ful at­ten­tion to how your usual tone is re­ceived. Sen­si­tiv­i­ties vary over time as well. As any par­ent of a 13-year-old can tell you. If she flinches, then go for buffered truth: “Mom, you’re the best baker I know. You’ll fig­ure out the gluten-free thing – I’ve done some Googling, if you’re in­ter­ested.”

As for whether you’re re­quired to eat ined­i­ble desserts in the mean­time, again, read the room. If the room tells you to be brave, then re­mind your­self that so­ci­ety has had this one cov­ered for years. A few bites and a thankyou.

And when you get to the point where tra­di­tional use­ful­ness in the form of feed­ing or host­ing or clean­ing is re­ally re­ally out of the ques­tion for a loved one, don’t for­get the use­ful­ness of shar­ing and pres­ence. Your el­derly rel­a­tive who feels she “can’t do any­thing for any­one any­more” is the one whose com­pany you re­quest, whose sto­ries you prompt, whose chair you pull yours up to, whose photo al­bums you re­trieve so she can tell you who ev­ery­one is and what was hap­pen­ing on that day. Be­cause no one else can do that for the rest of you, and be­cause it’s so im­por­tant. She can ground you, en­rich you, hum­ble you, con­nect you. Show the next gen­er­a­tion how it’s done.

If she pooh-poohs that, then that’s her pre­rog­a­tive – you can’t make peo­ple like where they are in life. But it’s your pre­rog­a­tive to keep en­cour­ag­ing her – and any other rel­a­tives too young or too ill or too over­whelmed by life to join the fam­ily-gath­er­ing la­bor pool – to con­trib­ute com­pan­ion­ship. And if they ab­so­lutely in­sist on dot­ting that “i” with ined­i­ble pie, then be glad that’s as bad as it gets.

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