One of my clients, who I will call Marilyn, was not unusual in her fear that she might become disabled one day. Her attitude, which she expressed to her three children, was that if she ever needed nursing home care her family should “take me out to the backyard and shoot me.” Not able to contemplate a middle course, she did no advance planning for the possibility that she would need care in the future. Her failure to think ahead proved fateful for her family and points to the necessity of thoughtful planning.
Marilyn was lonely in the house in which she had raised her children (her husband having passed away years before). She and her younger daughter, Nancy, agreed that Marilyn should move in with Nancy's family, and together they purchased a new house with an in-law apartment.
After the move, unfortunately, Marilyn became ill, and she has needed increasing levels of assistance ever since. Nancy gave up her part-time job to care for her mother, and the situation has put great strain on the entire family.
It also has given rise to discord between Nancy and her brother and sister. Nancy and her husband felt that they should be compensated for their sacrifice. The brother and sister appreciated what Nancy and her family were doing for their mother, but they believed that the bigger house that Marilyn helped them purchase was adequate compensation.
Unfortunately, the arguments over what Nancy and her husband should be paid and the most appropriate care for Marilyn split the family in two.
Could this have been avoided? Perhaps.
Marilyn could have planned ahead and included all of her children in the planning process. Even after it became clear that Marilyn needed help, her family might have been able to come together on a plan of care for her if they had talked openly.
All too often, these misunderstandings occur due to family members having different and incomplete information. Frequently, some family members feel overburdened, afraid to ask for help, or don’t know what they can expect from siblings and other relatives. Families often can avoid these results by taking the following steps:
• Meet while everyone is healthy to plan ahead and get proper estate and financial planning in place.
• If a crisis occurs, meet to share information and expectations and to divvy up responsibilities.
• Prior to the meeting, everyone should compile a list of what they want to learn and what issues they would like to cover.
• Prepare an agenda in advance.
• Meet in-person if possible. If not, use conference calling or video solutions.
• Use a facilitator, usually a geriatric care manager or an elder law attorney, although it’s possible that family friends or clergy can serve this role.
• Write down and share any decisions that come from the meeting.
• Hold as many meetings as necessary.
By taking these steps, many misunderstandings can be avoided and no single family member needs to feel entirely alone and overwhelmed. Whether it’s a question of moving in with a child, moving to a retirement community, or simply deciding who will handle financial and health care decisions upon the parent’s illness or incapacity, an open discussion can avoid misunderstandings and bruised feelings. It certainly would have helped if Marilyn’s family had taken these steps before Nancy stepped into the breach to take care of her mom.
Harry Margolis founded Margolis & Bloom LLP, a six-lawyer Boston law firm in 1987. He has been a designated “Super Lawyer” since 2005 and is Founder and President of ElderLawAnswers that supports seniors, their families and their attorneys by providing various online tools and resources.