Dear How to Do It,
My grandmother is in her 80s and is the caregiver of my grandfather, in his late 80s. They have four adult sons. My grandfather has autism—he’s never been formally diagnosed but our whole family is doctors and that’s what they’ve concluded. A decade ago, he had a debilitating bout of depression, which was then followed by rapid physical and cognitive decline that doctors can’t quite pinpoint the reason for.
He’s always been brilliant, if pretty self-centered. But whatever social graces he had before the depression have pretty much gone out the window. Now he’s uncommunicative and uncoordinated, but can still feed himself, walk, and do basic tasks. Basically, he parks himself in a recliner and reads mysteries, and yells at the little kids to keep down the noise. My grandmother dotes on him, and treats him like a preschooler, making him sandwiches he’s perfectly capable of making himself, doing up his tie, etc. She’s never worked, and I think she got a lot of joy out of being a wife and mother and taking care of all of her boys’ needs. Sort of a “likes to be needed” situation. They live in an apartment in an assisted living facility, and it has aides who are wonderful and perfectly able to sit with him while she goes out to dinner with her friends, but she doesn’t want to leave him.
Recently, my grandmother confided separately in both an aunt and my mom—both of whom are her daughters-in-law—that she and my grandfather have sex every night, even though it hurts her, but she doesn’t feel like she can say “no.” My mom was caught completely off guard—we’re a pretty prudish family, my mom especially, and she told me she was really uncomfortable talking about sex with her mother-in-law. She stammered something about how she should be able to say “no” before a younger cousin came in and the conversation was over. But my grandma apparently brought it up before with my aunt and actually got in a conversation with her about it, although I don’t know what she said.
He’s not physically strong enough to force her—he’s lost almost all of his muscle tone and he’d never threaten her—and my sense is that it’s more that my grandma doesn’t want to deal with him needling her or trying to convince her or sulking if she’s just not interested. But still, I do feel like she was turning both to my mom and to my aunt for help, and my mom at least let her down. My mom agrees and has said she’d like to bring it up again with her, but doesn’t know how. To me, a Gen Z girl, any situation in which she feels like she can’t say “no” (especially to something that hurts) is abusive. My mom agrees, but she’s struggling with how to approach this topic again with her mother-in-law. Any thoughts?
—How to Say No