Being Happy With The ‘New Normal’

In a recent New York Times Well article by Jane Brody, she wrote, “…aging and illness alter who we are, so move on and make the best of the here and now.” This article and statement reminded me of aging parents who are stubborn and refuse to acknowledge and accept their limitations as they age.

In our mediation practice, we have come across parents living alone in their homes insisting that at the age of 90 they are able to maintain their independence and perform the daily tasks of grocery shopping, preparing meals and getting to doctor appointments on their own. While this sounds impressive and seems like a goal we should all try to achieve, and some nonagenarians are able to do this, the truth is that at the age of 90 these daily tasks become more challenging and stressful. If the adult children observe more closely, they will see their aging parents become more exhausted by these tasks, become more frustrated by these tasks and take unnecessary risks that increase their chances of falling and injuring themselves. So why do aging parents go to such lengths to be independent — Pride! Our aging parents have pride in aging gracefully and independently without seeking assistance from their children. Although they have aged, they have no intentions of changing the way they live. We all should get that and applaud the determination of a 90 year old to maintain a life that they have lived and have enjoyed for such a long time. However, there comes a time when circumstances have changed and it may no longer be wise for aging parents to continue living alone as if they were 50 years old.

So what can an adult child do in this situation? First, act early and quickly to prevent a crisis and serious accidents. As an adult child who either is involved or will become involved with your parents’ care, you have standing to discuss with your parents the ways in which they can balance their aging process with their desire to remain independent so that they remain safe. That may include getting an aide for a few hours a day who can help with cooking and doctor appointments and it may mean ordering groceries online instead of walking to the grocery store. It may also mean moving to an independent or assisted living facility. And if necessary, this discussion may progress as there are further needs for a safer environment.

The other important suggestion, which Ms. Brody highlights in her recent article, is that our aging parents should learn how to embrace and adjust their expectations regarding their changed circumstances. Instead of becoming angry and upset about the aging process, accept the changes and strive for a successful life with accommodations that make life easier and safer. There is no shame in accepting a new life style as you age. Perhaps as our parents age, they can become more involved in figuring out how they can create a new life that takes into account new safety limitations but is nevertheless fulfilling and engaging.

Capacity

As mediators, we are required to take capacity into account when mediating. Capacity as we define it is the ability to enter into an agreement and be able to stick to it. Sometimes, when discussing proposed mediation sessions with adult children talking about their parent’s care we will discuss whether their parents can participate. People with advanced dementia or elderly parents with diminishing mental capacity are not able to coherently participate in decisions that ultimately everyone present will need to agree upon and carry out.

But it’s not just elderly or demented people who pose a problem. It’s not unusual for us to get a call from a sibling about mediation and during the course of the conversation have them mention that a sister or brother is ‘crazy’. Often times it may not be that particular sibling who is crazy; it may just be that they are hard to get along with or they are being the difficult ones in the conflict. But every once in a while, there is a family member who is mentally impaired and truly cannot engage in a serious conversation or the decision-making process. We rely on the other participants who know the person well to make that initial decision and ultimately our own judgment after speaking with him/her.

As well intentioned as people might be, it is up to family and professionals to take capacity into account for planning. Is this adult child able to be part of the conversations after a parent’s death? Is he/she capable of handling finances? Are the other adult children left with the task of including a sibling who doesn’t have the decision-making capacity? These are questions lawyers and financial advisors should be asking as they help their clients plan for the future.

Keeping Family Conflicts from Ruining the Holidays

November is here and the holidays are approaching! The excitement of decorating the house, creating dinner menus and specialty drinks, and being surrounded by family members is there-until some of the realities hit us. As we get closer to when our adult children come home and the extended family gathers, we start to remember the difficulties of having everyone in the house. Your children seem to argue with one another over little things when they are together, you find yourself walking on egg shells to avoid a fight with your daughter and none of your siblings want to discuss the elephant in the room: are your aging parents okay living at home or do we need to consider alternatives. It’s exhausting!

Being with our children and family should not be this difficult. These are our most important relationships in life and throughout the years we should enjoy our families as they grow. To improve our family relationships we may want to examine the way in which we communicate with one another.

To begin with, try having honest conversations with each family member in advance of the holidays and discuss the ways we can avoid the arguments. Acknowledge trigger points and hot topics dto be avoided. Honest conversations mean you have to leave your anger, guilt and fear out of the conversation and show your family your loving and supportive intentions to create meaningful relationships and fun for the holidays. In addition, it is equally important to take ownership of behavior that may trigger anger from your loved ones and discuss the ways in which you can reframe your words to modify the message. Your children and family members love you and you love them. There is no reason you cannot engage in conversations without someone becoming explosive. But it takes time, planning and an understanding that words and the way we speak to one another have consequences. As parents and as hosts for this Holiday season, we may want to shake things up and try a different approach to achieve the Hallmark Thanksgiving dinner we all want to achieve.

Happy Holidays!

Forgiveness

 

Forgiveness was in the news a couple of months ago. It seems that Taylor Swift has forgiven Kanye West for interrupting her acceptance speech at the Grammy’s last year. You were unaware of this news? I certainly was until the op ed pieces started coming out commenting on this news event. Commentators discussed whether they thought it was a magnanimous gesture or whether it was deserved as well as several thoughts on forgiveness in general. Forgiveness can be a sensitive issue for people. It is fraught with emotion and involves letting go.

Apologies, forgiveness… we have all had to grapple with circumstances where it was too hard to forgive or we are unable to let go of a slight, hurt, or situation that was too devastating to let pass. In some cases, these go back in time and have festered making it even more difficult to find it within ourselves to overcome our harsh feelings.

How often do we say we’re sorry without meaning it or resist saying we’re sorry at all? How often have we rejected an apology because we were unable to forgive?

Most of us learn about forgiveness growing up. What our families teach us or what we learn through our religious training may shape how we are able to process these feelings later on. As with all learned behavior, we learn from example, either good ones or bad.

The Jewish High Holidays are called the Days of Atonement. During this time Jews are asked to reflect on those they have wronged during the year and extend apologies but with specific guidelines for how those apologies are given. It’s not enough to just say a general ‘I’m sorry’. People are asked to think about how they have specifically wronged someone and apologize and seek forgiveness for that action or those particular words that hurt or offended another person.

Apologies are always expected from children but are parents offering apologies to children for behavior that they later regret or realize was inappropriate or hurtful? It is worth considering that children see what is patterned for them by their parents. Learning how to extend a sincere apology and learning forgiveness can help people get past a hurdle that allows them to move on. Maybe we cannot always forget some slights or hurt, but we may be able to forgive the person and not let it burden our lives as we get older and enable us to leave the lines of communication open.

 

To Reconcile or Not to Reconcile?

 

Sometimes relationships just are not working. It can be a sibling or a parent or a child or a friend. It just is not working. Oftentimes there is a lot of hurt and sometimes the relationship ends with a bang and sometimes it just trails off. Every once in a while you might consider re-connecting. Is it the right thing to do? Or if there is no ‘right thing’, is it really worth going through the possible pain of re-connecting?

Firstly, the relationship between the people matters. If it’s friends, you might let that one go no matter how old the relationship is. But if a parent and child are involved, you might be willing to give it more of a try and be able to overlook more. It is very individual and a very personal decision.

Secondly, there is the benefit factor. Will reconstituting this relationship add or detract from your life? That is a big consideration. To be honest with ourselves, some relationships can bring joy, even if it is just in reminiscing, and some can be a drain on our lives.

Everyone has his or her own personal breaking points. For some it may be that not attending a family wedding may be the cut off point, for some it may be a funeral. While it is usually understood when there is a legitimate reason for not being there, if it is just a matter of the importance of the event not being understood or shared by the other person, it can be too hurtful to let pass.

Family may mean well in promoting continuations of relationships that just are not right for you. For instance, one sibling might feel compelled to continue communicating with a sister or brother out of guilt or genuine concern, while the other sibling has given up after realizing it was all take and no give on one side. Is this unhealthy? Not always. It’s a decision only you can make and you have to decide if you are comfortable living with it. It may be necessary to just let it taper off but respond in a friendly manner when being contacted, knowing that you might not be the one who will be initiating the connection. It is not up to someone else to pressure you to continue a relationship that you find hurtful or painful.

And sometimes it’s just better to give it time. Time can be a great healer and it can help you develop a new perspective. We have different ways of looking at relationships at different points in our lives.

Re-Marrying: Reducing the Complications

Have you noticed the ads for senior dating sites? People are living longer and, in addition to the inevitable fact of becoming a widow/widower, the incidence of divorce over the age of 60 has increased, resulting in an increased pool of single, mature adults. Re-marrying at any point in life has its complications, and re-marrying later in life is no exception, even if the kids are now adults and living independently.

Aside from the problem of gaining acceptance for a stepparent, there are concerns over estates and genuine worries about protecting the lifetime assets that are meant to insure the later years of an aging parent. Seniors who are marrying are often retired and on fixed incomes, relying on their savings to last and see them through any future disability.

We hear from parents whose children are no longer speaking to them, either because they do not like the new spouse, or they are angry over sharing their expected inheritance. We hear from children who are, indeed, upset about the inheritance they expected from their parents or, are now caring for a parent who has been financially crippled by a divorce and has now lost the financial protection they had amassed over a lifetime of work. Amid all of this anger and hurt, there are legitimate concerns and ways to avoid pitfalls and family discord.

Seniors, or those re-marrying at any age, can take steps to protect the assets they have accumulated during their prior marriage. Couples sometimes make assumptions based on their previous experience when they first married and before they had a family. Now they are marrying with their own families in place. This is when the advice of an experienced financial planner and trusts and estates lawyer can help safeguard against future problems for the couple and their heirs. Assets do not have to be combined and maybe should not be; financial arrangements can be put in place that protect them and their assets. Then, consider sharing these plans with the children. Let them know your wishes. It may result in some initial resentment or anger, but can save a lot of trouble down the road for the surviving spouse and families. Think about mediation if you cannot have this conversation alone.

No, parents do not have to live out their retirement years skimping in order to leave inheritances. They should be able to enjoy what they have worked for. Sharing your philosophy and plans, and listening to your children’s concerns and advice, might be the best way to start off a new life together.

RE-EVALUATING RELATIONSHIPS AS WE GET OLDER

Stress in American life has been a popular topic for a long time. We have been dealing with it from an early age; remember studying for tests in school or waiting for the college admissions letter? This was just the beginning. Whether it’s commuting, home repairs, deadlines, or caregiving, we have a lot of stress factors in our daily life. Some we can control, some we can’t. As we get older, we are often not as susceptible to some of the old stress factors, having more distance and maturity to deal with them. Or some of us are retired and have retired some of our work stress. But for many of us, the one stress that seems to survive and, for some people thrive, is family stress.

So many of us dread the holidays, which seem to come around with increasing frequency as we age. Relationships with siblings or parents that were tense growing up, seem to have gotten worse as time has gone by. It doesn’t matter that some of the disagreements are rooted in our teen years or earlier, these disputes that drove us apart have grown and festered with time and we have avoided dealing with them. I know people who have reconciled when a parent has died but shouldn’t we be thinking about our relationships now and not wait for something so drastic? I have worked with adults who have elderly parents where fights over their care and estates has divided the siblings and shattered their shared family lives. Despite what seems like insurmountable obstacles, family tension is one area where we can have some control and often need to find ways to move forward as we get older.

Sometimes family stress involves accepting a new family dynamic. As more people re-marry in later years, adult children find themselves having to accept step-parents and adapt to blended families at an older age. Those transitions can be difficult and hard to talk about. Holidays and family events can become even more complicated and there can be a lot of hurt to get over. Maybe there’s another way of looking at it: How lucky Mom/Dad is to find love at this age! It may take a while to get to this outlook but isn’t it worth trying?

There are costs to not maintaining a relationship with family. For one thing, when we separate ourselves from them we are also denying our children formative relationships with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I have had conversations with young adults whose parents are in business and not speaking. These young adults requested an intervention for their elders so they can, once again, have holiday dinners together.  A person who had been in business with his uncle decided, after an unpleasant split in the business, that they would suspend all animosity for family occasions so as not to jeopardize the greater family relationships. My friend, who had stopped speaking to her sister after her mother died a few years ago, recently invited her sister to an event and was delighted when it went well. They will never be best friends but their families will be spending the next holiday together. Do not underestimate the value of the occasional phone calls from nieces and nephews and extended family as we age and our circles get smaller.

I sometimes hear siblings say, “I wouldn’t speak to my sister/brother if I didn’t have to.” That may well be true but life’s circumstances sometimes force the need for communication. Caring for elderly parents usually falls to adult siblings. For those who have had an ongoing good relationship, these tense circumstances can be easier to deal with. But for those who do not have a good rapport with siblings, sharing responsibility for the care of a parent becomes more complicated and unpleasant for all involved. As I often tell adults whose parents are in their 80’s and 90’s, it’s not a question of if something happens with elderly parents, it’s a question of when. Isn’t it better to think ahead and be prepared to work together, relieving some of the stress and anxiety that comes with the situation?

No, our siblings may not be the easiest people to get along with, but then again, we are no longer living with them. It’s not about going back in time and reliving the hurts and injuries of the past; it’s about finding a way to move forward. Maybe with a little effort and, if necessary, with a little assistance, we can repair these damaged relations, minimize the stress and hurt, and get what we can and give what we can with a different perspective in our later years.

 

The Vacuum Caused by Dementia

 

Recently I was at an event where a guest with Frontal Temporal Dementia was present. This is a brilliant man who has had the disease for over four years and is now left with a rapidly progressing, debilitating disease. The guests knew he had dementia although not necessarily the type. As is often the case, most people when thinking of dementia, were expecting Alzheimer’s Disease and seeing someone similarly afflicted. Many of the people were actually relieved to see how well he is functioning. This conclusion was based on the fact that he knew their names and was very sociable. The fact that he is incapable of speaking even the briefest of sentences or expressing himself verbally was not factored into their assessment. Frontal Temporal Dementia presents differently from Alzheimers. The person doesn’t become withdrawn. They lose all inhibitions – it does, after all, affect the temporal lobe – are unable to find words, and lose their muscle strength.

This is just one of the many isolating experiences caretakers for people with dementia, any kind of dementia, face: the gap between their reality and other people’s perspectives.

Friends who have relatives with dementia have described how after encountering friends or neighbors on the street, people will remark that the person with dementia seems to ‘be not that bad’. They base that on the fact that the person has been able to nod at appropriate times or cover for their lack of understanding in other ways. The caretaker however, knows that person can no longer watch or comprehend a television program and is incontinent, a very different perspective. It’s often these disconnects in reality that make the caretaker feel isolated. They are seeing the ravages of dementia up close while the fleeting glance can appear very different to those who are ill-informed or see a glimpse of it. Whatever the kind of dementia, it’s an isolating experience living with someone who has dementia.

A friend of mine who has a sister with early onset Alzheimer’s pointed out another aspect of dementia: unlike other debilitating and fatal diseases, those with dementia cannot express their wishes which creates a conflict-causing vacuum. I have seen this up close and it is a difficult situation. A person gets dementia and, even if he/she has clearly planned and expressed his/her wishes, family members and friends ‘know’ what the person would want. (If they haven not planned for the future, the situation is worse.) She hears, “I know she would want…” all the time, whether the person actually has some insight or not. Although every one may be well-meaning, the assumed desires of the patient may put the family members in conflict over the care of their relative. In my friend’s case, she has the power of attorney but needs to consider the desires of her young adult nephews and, in this case, her sister’s interfering ex-husband. In cases where adult siblings do not agree on the care and wishes of their parent, disagreements can fray relationships and leave the disabled parent without the care and services they need while the children argue about it. There are so many sensitive decisions to be made: taking away the driver’s license, insuring the person’s safety, getting an aide, deciding on the right living situation, getting the finances in order. These decisions all require a united family or at least one that is in agreement on important issues.

Advanced planning and expressing one’s desires about care are so important but often an avoided conversation. Caring for a person with dementia is stressful enough. A facilitated conversation might ease the way for moving ahead and getting the person with dementia the needed care. It is best to fill that vacuum with consensus.

Gail Goodman

 

 

 

 

Fear

Fear is a strong emotion. We can experience it walking down a dark street and we can experience it watching a suspenseful movie. We can also experience extreme physical symptoms with fear. Our heart beat may accelerate causing panic attacks, our palms may sweat, we may feel weak and dizzy and we may become very anxious if the fear escalates. No matter what the symptoms may be, fear is an emotion that most people would like to avoid. And the fear you feel, whether real or not, can turn into anger.

Family members can also experience fear when there is conflict within the family. For example, let’s say your mother’s dementia is progressing and you view your sister’s care for your mother inadequate. Yet, for some reason, you are afraid to discuss the matter with your family. Perhaps, as children, your sister was one tough cookie and you never won an argument with her. Or the sight of your mother’s condition scares you so much that you can’t begin a conversation about her care. So instead of doing something you sit in silence and watch things deteriorate.

Having these much needed family conversations is so important for you, your mother and for your family relationships. Yet, the fear keeps you silent until a crisis happens and then the family is in chaos and unable to arrive at the best decision.

Family Mediation has been effective in helping family members manage their fear in order to resolve family conflict. When family members are at a mediation session, a trained neutral mediator assists in creating a safe platform for everyone to air their concerns without being belittled and dismissed by other family members. In fact, ground rules that specifically address this matter are addressed at the beginning of the session. More importantly, the mediator will make sure that each family member listens to and understands what is being said so that they can respond in an appropriate meaningful way. Once this process begins, the fear and potential anger dissipates and family members begin to relax, feeling confident that they are being heard. Finally, the family is on the road to reaching a mutually agreeable resolution.

At one family session I mediated with my partner, Gail, one daughter was initially afraid to be in the same room with her sister. She experienced physical and emotional fear. Each sister took a turn explaining their concerns about the care of their mother and the role each daughter had in that care. As mediators, we made sure that the details, feelings and reasons for these concerns were expressed. After going back and forth making sure that everyone was on the same page as to what was being said, the way in which the sisters communicated changed. They no longer were angry, fearful, or resistant to the process. At the end, the sisters were able to reach an agreement regarding the care of their mother and they even hugged one another.

Rather than reliving childhood family dynamics in fear, family members can communicate effectively with the help of a family mediator. Therefore, the next time you are afraid to talk to a family member, ask yourself if the fear you are feeling is working for you. When you realize it isn’t, think about family mediation.