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My grandfather is having health issues. Last week, he was complaining about being tired, sleeping a lot and acting confused (can't find his way to the bathroom, that kind of stuff). He had a very quick pulse and got some medicine at the beginning of the week to treat this, but it took a while before the medicine started working. The exceptionally hot weather of last week probably didn't help his condition either.

At the same time, my grandmother seems unable to understand that some pills don't immediately work, but require a while to fully kick in. So she would be calling my parents 2/3 times a day saying my grandfather was still not doing any better, but he had taken his medicine so he should feel better, right?. A few times, my parents wouldn't be near their cellphones so she'd be calling the house phone or my cellphone, and I'd be stuck with trying to calm her down.

The conversations were mostly similar: One of my parents had promised to come later, but could they please come now because my grandfather was still not doing better. I tried to ask whether things were getting worse or find out what happened to prompt the call but basically got no coherent answers, just repeated assertions that I should attempt to contact one of my parents to come immediately.

For the first one, I panicked and overreacted by calling my father afterwards, so he could talk to his mother about this. Surprisingly, even though she was acting like everything was getting worse, when dad dropped his work to visit, both my grandparents said that my grandfather was actually doing a little bit better.

For the second/third one after that, I tried to reassure my grandmother that my parents would be there at the agreed upon time, that if my grandfather was actually doing very badly she should call the emergency number, that they'd be there sooner than any parent, and I tried to reassure her that if grandfather wasn't obviously getting worse, eventually the medicine would kick in.

It seemed to leave her more agitated than reassured though, all the phone calls ended with grandmother hanging up the phone with a frustrated remark (something like 'Never mind then') and then continuing to try and call my parents at their cellphones. Mostly, this resulted in my parents dropping what they were doing or again calling me and sending me over (my grandparents live just a few streets away). All the times, it turned out grandfather was doing as fine as circumstances would allow.

Grandfather is doing a bit better now, but I'm expecting the next time to be close around the corner, so:

When getting a call from a panicked grandmother, how do I calm her down without her dropping the phone call in frustration and either her or me having to bother my parents?

For those that care: I'm 28 and currently living with my parents, so I'm not some young child confronted with this, luckily.

  • Would you going to your grandparents house instaed of your parents going be a solution? – Ael Aug 10 at 8:49
  • Not really. While they only live a few streets away, I don't particularly fancy to drop whatever I'm doing (especially if it's work from home) to go there and be told everything is actually not that bad. Like I said, I also have been sent there a few times by my parents when they themselves really couldn't go, and it's been useless. – Tinkeringbell Aug 10 at 8:51
  • If it's only a few streets away, maybe a quick visit would resolve things faster than a lengthy phone call? (That said, I feel with you, having gone through similar conversations with my own grandmother when she thought a nightmare was real. You're more patient than I am.) – Llewellyn Aug 10 at 18:57
  • Also, what did the doctor say? Maybe she'd be more inclined to believe their GP than even a close family member. – Llewellyn Aug 10 at 18:58
  • @Llewellyn a quick visit could work if I had nothing else to do, like work... The phone calls, which are relatively short, are already enough of a disturbance and a hassle, I really can't just drop whatever I'm doing. The doctor simply prescribed medicine last week and told them to make another appointment of things hadn't improved by today (which they did, so my grandparents didn't make another appointment today). – Tinkeringbell Aug 10 at 19:09
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It's hard to be sure, but I think you're misunderstanding the help that is being asked for. You hear "come over and help grandfather get better, or help me decide if we should rush to the hospital." I hear "come over and help me feel better about my husband being sick and maybe having to go to the hospital." She doesn't want to be alone with her worries and she may be getting "spun out" over small changes in his condition and convincing herself things are worse than they are.

I have a person in my life who suffers from anxiety and can at times call multiple times a day just to hear reassurances. Examples of reassurances in your case would be

  • yes, he should be getting better in the next few days,
  • yes, I believe the doctors when they say they expect him to recover from this
  • they said to go to the hospital (or call them or whatever) if he X, but he isn't X, so that's good
  • you and grandfather have gotten through illnesses before and I'm sure you will again
  • one of us can come over this evening to see for ourselves how he's doing and to help you with anything you need done. I trust you're monitoring him correctly so I'm not worried
  • if you needed any of us for an emergency we would come right away
  • and possibly "I'll be right there, it sounds like you need some company"

I have literally set off on a 45 minute drive to visit my anxious person only to get a call saying "I'm ok, I calmed down, I can handle it." Knowing we have their back enables them to handle it themselves. On the other hand, brushing them off, not taking their call, telling them there's nothing to worry about, saying we are too busy to help -- that just ramps them up to a more anxious response. You've observed something similar: when a family member drops everything and visits, they are doing better by the time the family member arrives. The visit itself improves both grandfather's condition and grandmother's anxiety about it.

It's not your job (or even your parents' job) to be a therapist to your grandmother. But it's hardly surprising that she's very worried. Is this the beginning of the end for him? Will things just get harder and harder until she is left alone? If he dies or goes into a home, how will she carry on without him? These are awful things she's facing. As part of that, she wants to know she can count on her family unconditionally, as they could count on her when they were younger.

If your work from home is of the kind where you can take an hour break now and make up for it in the evenings, that is probably what I would recommend you do. In the annals of family history, it will go down that you were there for grandmother whenever she needed you, and you came over and made tea or did laundry and generally made everyone feel better, during those awful weeks when grandfather was ill. [Many years ago my mother got sick right before Xmas and I did ONE grocery shopping trip for her to get all she needed for Xmas dinner and the story was told of how Kate Saved Xmas for decades afterwards. People still mention it sometimes. One shopping trip!] If you can't do that, then a meeting of you and your parents is probably in order to establish who can do that for a while. These are things that family does for each other. They're disruptive and difficult, yet we find a way to do them.

If you absolutely cannot find a way for anyone to visit her during the day, then work on those reassurances over the phone. You don't calm people down by saying "calm down" or "it's nothing." You calm people down by reminding them of reassuring facts (they said these pills could take 3 or 4 days to work, he hasn't worsened, you have plenty of supplies in the cupboard, I can do your laundry tonight after dinner) and by letting them know you are there for them.

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    Agree with this answer. In the comment, OP mentioned "I also have been sent there a few times by my parents when they themselves really couldn't go, and it's been useless." I'd say that it's not useless, it helped grandmother to calm down (I assumed that was what happened, since OP's parents sent OP to go) – justhalf Aug 11 at 7:36
  • I'm not sure how the reassurances you say should work over the phone are different from the ones I described already trying in my question: "For the second/third one after that, I tried to reassure my grandmother that my parents would be there at the agreed upon time, that if my grandfather was actually doing very badly she should call the emergency number, that they'd be there sooner than any parent, and I tried to reassure her that if grandfather wasn't obviously getting worse, eventually the medicine would kick in." I've definitely told grandma more than just 'calm down'. – Tinkeringbell Aug 11 at 7:50
  • I cannot know whether the issue was that the reassurances weren't delivered in a reassuring way (honestly, telling someone that the ambulance can get there faster than me just sounds like 'if it's not bad enough for an ambulance why are you calling?') or that your grandmother knew she wanted a visit more than phone talk. That's why I recommend visiting if it's at all possible. She knows what she feels she needs. If it can be provided, she'll feel better. She is, as you say, panicking. – Kate Gregory Aug 11 at 9:43
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    I believe tone of voice can make a lot of difference in this. When you answer the phone with the attitude that is shining through in your post, I think grandma can sense this and even when your words say exactly what she needs to hear, if the underlying feeling is “why are you bothering me with your useless worries?”, that will not reassure her. – AsheraH Aug 11 at 9:53
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    @justhalf Just because I know some answers doesn't mean I know all of them, because I haven't experienced every possible situation one could encounter. Apparently the things I'd suggest people usually try to calm down others (which I've applied to this situation) aren't working, so at such points I end up writing a question to ask others how to calm someone down over the phone, hoping they have experienced a situation where all 'regular' ways have failed and found a different solution, if that makes sense? I think if you want to talk about this further, Interpersonal Skills Chat is a better venue ;) – Tinkeringbell Aug 12 at 6:29
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First of all, remember that your grandmother is in a very, very scary situation. Her husband that she has loved and relied on for decades, is mysteriously ill. Being scared and panicked is normal under these circumstances. I'm not saying that panicking helps, just that it's normal.

I sometimes get calls from a close relative who gets easily overwhelmed and panicked. What I find helps the most is to come up with specific things for them to do. In your case, there are probably specifics that the doctor has talked about... checking pulse, taking temperature, maybe asking him questions to check cognition, etc. The hardest thing for people to deal with is when something is scary and they feel like there's nothing they can do.

So have the list of items that the docs have talked about. Even if all you are doing is repeating something that she should know, do it. She may have forgotten. Even if she's already done that check, reminding her of a specific thing to do gets her focused and away from the formless panic.

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