How many of us can say that our families were mostly calm and peaceful, and there was no constant conflict in them? I’m guessing not many. As parents get older, ingrained conflict can intensify, especially when it comes to discussing finances.
The underlying causes of dysfunction in family dynamics can be many: a history of poor parenting, untreated mental illness, substance abuse, and others. Given that these issues are pervasive in our society, it’s no surprise that adult children have a hard time approaching the topic of money with their aging parents. Aging parents may also be reluctant to talk about this with their adult children. This creates a problem that plays out somewhere every day: the eldest in the family has not disclosed what the potential need for care and support is, and the adult child or children are completely unaware. Adult children have estranged relationships and no one talks. It tends to explode when a crisis occurs.
Here at AgingParents.com, where we give advice to families of older people, we see repeated descriptions that go something like “I haven’t talked to my brother in years” or “I don’t get along with my sister and she’s not involved.” The person describing the situation is usually a responsible adult child who is in crisis with his parents and desperately needs advice. The Elder falls, is hospitalized, and after rehabilitation, he returns home, unable to cope on his own. Or an aging parent has had a stroke and can no longer take care of herself. Sometimes an aging parent will show signs of memory loss and dementia for a while, and then they will do something stupid with money, get lost or crash their car. All of these scenarios force family members to recognize that the parent needs help. When communication between siblings or between parents and adult children is disrupted, it can be excruciatingly difficult to try to work together to solve problems.
When an aging parent’s crisis arises or an aging loved one approaches, family members take notice and have the opportunity to act. sometimes responsible de facto The leader speaks and wants everyone to discuss what to do. When family members in conflict are asked to come together by phone, Zoom, or in person, there is a tendency to bring out hidden hostility and allegations of past wrongdoing. Simply put, digging into the past never works.
What can families do about longstanding internal conflicts?
If the goal is to ensure the care and safety of the elderly, this is most likely some kind of common ground, it is important to identify it first. If family members agree that this is what they want, this is a step towards reaching some kind of agreement. The initiator of the conversation needs to talk about the known problems with the aging parent. One mistake that some “responsible” family members make is that they assume that everyone else knows the same information. This may include medical information, diagnoses, financial problems, loss of independence, etc.
Professionals Can Help Disadvantaged Families Make Agreements
When old feuds rear their ugly heads and the family can’t come to an agreement, it’s time to turn to a family meeting or call for help. Professional mediators can help, social workers, aged care providers, and even trusted clergy can help the family focus on the aging parent’s goal, not what’s wrong with another sibling or something that they have resentment from the past. This is mediation. This is completely different from therapy. There may be one or two meetings to see if agreements can be reached. The goal is not to fix a broken relationship. Sometimes relationships improve when it is possible to reach an agreement on any issue.
The warning here is that if you ignore the underlying problem of parental aging because you don’t get along with either the parent or the other members of your family, things will only get worse.
1. If you see an aging parent crisis coming or they are in, don’t ignore it. It just won’t go away. Aging doesn’t work like that.
2. Take the lead talking and asking to discuss with another family about what to do with an aging loved one in trouble.
3. Fully focus on caring for the elderly and their safety. Ask others to refrain from remembering the past. Try to keep the agreements sticking to what’s happening right now.
4. If your family can’t even talk without screaming and accusations, hire a professional to help with the family meeting. A neutral outsider, preferably a trained professional facilitator, can help you come to an agreement about the aging parent.
5. Do not give up! Your aging parent’s safety is at stake. No matter how they behave or how difficult siblings may be, the aging person is vulnerable and needs some help. Forgive the past. This does not mean that you are condoning bad behavior. This means that you are letting go of your emotional attachment to him.