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Dear Family Advisor

My grandmother is so mean that no one wants to visit her!

By , Caring.com contributing editor
Last updated: July 12, 2011

My grandmother is 90 and a bit frail, but her mind is sharp -- perhaps a little too sharp! She's such a gripe that none of her family members want to visit her. At Chanukah dinner last year she actually announced to my brother (and the entire table) that she's never loved him. She says the crudest, meanest, even sexist or racist things right to people's faces.

She calls me at least twice a week and gives me a guilt trip about not stopping by to see her, but I just can't bring myself to be around that much negativity. She doesn't do anything while I'm there but hurl insults and fuss about how no one visits her.

My mother takes her on errands once a week and always returns in tears. She's insisting that I (but not my brother) help out as well. Should I just suck it up and see her on a regular basis? If I do, is there any way I can stop her from being so ugly?

Your grandmother is a bully who's been getting away with bad behavior for a long time. Now it's time to call her bluff. Visit one time this month, and the instant she starts to complain, tell her that no one wants to come see her because she's such a gripe. Tell her she's keeping people away, and that if she wants company, she has to play nice. I don't think we need to tiptoe around our elders. It's not disrespectful to tell it like it is, especially when you speak matter of factly and not in anger. Your grandmother will most likely come to respect you for standing up to her and stating the truth. And you'll both feel better when you stop cowering.

Retrain her as much as possible by stopping ugly talk in its tracks and instead rewarding good behavior. Of course, she's going to slip up; don't expect her to reform completely. But do praise any kind, funny, thoughtful, or simply not-negative response you get. What's more, visit for only a short while the first few times, so she won't have to be nice for too long. These are engrained habits, and it's going to take real work for her to wear her "good girl" hat for even a short period. To start, aim for being agreeable for the first 5 minutes of a 15-minute visit.

It will be easier for both of you if you do something together when you visit. Does she know how to knit or crochet, and could she teach you? Are there classes or activities you could enjoy together? Could you get her interested in a small window garden or a pet? Her attitude probably stems in part from habit and in part from boredom and frustration, especially if her mind is sharp but she's sitting in her room most of the day with little to do. Play investigator and tap into something that intrigues her. Record a soap opera, crime drama, or celebrity news show and get in the habit of watching it together. If you give it a chance, you may find that your grandmother can be pretty darn fascinating. Think of it as your mission to unearth her better side.

If this strategy doesn't work, then still go see her (for your mom's sake), but keep it short. Stop by for ten minutes once a week and take her an ice cream or a peach that's in season. Be consistent if you can; she may start to look forward to your return the same day every week. Let her know that if she's pleasant, you'll stay longer or stop by more often. But for now, smile and leave so that she truly understands that you're not going to tolerate nasty comments about you or anyone you love.

You'll also have to expect some general grumpiness. Some people are just curmudgeons by nature. Try to laugh it off and love her anyway, but draw a line when she lights into someone who doesn't deserve it. Be consistent in what you'll tolerate.

As far as getting your brother to help out, just stay away from that. You only get caught in a circle of frustration if you delve into what you think someone else should be doing.

In time, I think your grandmother will come around, at least a little. She obviously wants people to visit her. She wants to be included. She just needs to know what the rules are. She may be pushing everyone's buttons simply to get attention, so give her attention -- when she agrees to be pleasant for even a few minutes at a time.

Family members come in all varieties, and your grandmother sounds like a doozy. Still, she's your grandmother, and a direct link to your heritage. If you can get her to come around just a little, you'll reap the benefits of knowing that you helped your mom out and got to know a woman who has much to teach you about how -- and how not -- to live.