I am blessed with a healthy 90-year-old dad, a widower who lives independently and wants for nothing.
Still each day I worry about whether he will enjoy the next. Whether he will trip, fall, hit his head, collapse and not get up. Accidentally drive into a hidden ditch and forget how to call for help on his cell. Or be struck down by a malady that renders him helpless for the rest of his life.
I can’t just drop in on him – he lives far away – so I call in the evenings and we share the day’s highlights: his visits to the senior center where he takes most of his meals, his exercise classes, his bowling team’s luck and losses.
My dad was a small-town storekeeper, and he never lost the relish for control. He distrusts outsiders and still harbors a temper that as a child made me cringe. So it’s no surprise when he rejects advice from loved ones with a growl.
I’m happy to let dad have the last word in most cases. The dilemma is when his decisions clash with safety and prudence. I have only begun to experience the discomfiture of being the child of aging parents. But the distress of that changed role may surprise and torment, as has happened to a trusted friend of mine.
Until suddenly disabled, my friend’s mom, Lu, was a proudly self-reliant 74-year-old. As recently as a year ago, she climbed up on the roof of her house to see how many shingles had blown off in a storm. A petite woman who seemed constantly in motion, she’d survived stomach cancer and was managing her diabetes on her own. That is until the mid-May stroke that left her unable to communicate.
“It was like a bomb went off in her brain,” my friend said of the stroke. “She talked, but it was just nonsense. It was word salad.” Lu hasn’t lost her sunny personality, but needs to be looked after 24 hours a day. She’s lost vision, can’t remember her children’s names, can’t read pill labels and can’t give herself her insulin.
Now my friend must sort through a murky financial history that Lu no longer can explain. She’s in a nursing home now, but as the bills mount up it’s unclear how they will be paid.
“Dealing with the grief of my mother’s situation is bad enough, but dealing with the aftermath of how she is going to get cared for and what the future holds is so overwhelming,” my friend said.
In years past, Lu was her own boss. She ran a housekeeping business and, earlier in life, a beauty salon. She rented out little apartments attached to her house. She tried to invest in real estate. But she always lived month to month. And she didn’t disclose details of her finances to her children.
Although my friend and I grew up in different cultures, we were both taught to respect our parents’ authority. She didn’t challenge the way her mother managed her tiny income. At one point, my friend tried to get her mother to talk about how she handled money, but she was rebuffed.
“’If something happens to me, I will be dead,’” my friend recalled Lu saying. “It didn’t occur to her that she would be severely disabled.”
Now, as she hunts through her mother’s opaque bank statements and capricious real estate deals, my friend frets. She believes she’s failing Lu and feels ill-equipped to cope. Lu’s unorthodox bookkeeping has created what so far has proved to be a barrier to public assistance, the Medicaid she’ll need to pay those nursing home bills.
My friend has shared the lessons she’s learned with all her friends, and she’s been gracious enough to allow me to tell you, too.
“I think we all want to respect our parents’ privacy and not get too much into their business – especially if they are completely independent – but if something happens to them and they become incapacitated or unable to communicate, their lives and their financial situation will very quickly become your business.
“Not discussing things ahead of time just makes a terrible situation almost impossible to deal with. I would implore people to find out now what your parents’ financial picture looks like. Have them keep a document that contains all their passwords and have them tell you exactly where it is. Find out where their old bank statements, receipts are, and go through them together and make sure you understand every transaction.
“Nobody likes to think about our parents getting old, but ignoring the possibility is not going to keep it from happening.”Susan Gordon, one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page, lives on about five acres north of Eatonville with her husband and son. She’s a former News Tribune staff writer. Reach her at SJGordonCommunications@gmail.com.