Thursday, September 11, 2008

Taking Care of Mom

As I mentioned before, my mother had been away for several months, dealing with her own aging parent problems. When my dad got sick, we called her right away, and she started making arrangements to come back. This, of course, meant asking me to change her plane ticket yet again, or buy her a new one, which is what I ended up doing. I was home for a few days with my dad before Mom got there.

It was during these first few days that we were rushing to find a lawyer and have Dad make a will. We ended up having our first appointment with the lawyer on a Saturday, just before my mother was due to arrive home, which I felt a little weird about. I didn't want my mother to get home and feel like we'd been doing things behind her back. I had already talked to her on the phone about how I was organizing all Dad's papers and bills, but I don't think I actually told her we were having him make a will until the night she arrived back.

Here's sort of how the conversation went:

Madame X: Mom, I want you to know that I took Dad to a lawyer today so he could do a will and stuff.
Mom: Oh good, he should have all that settled
MX: Well, yeah, some of it should be settled soon, hopefully. But Mom, there are some things we need to do to protect both of you. We can't do all of this before his surgery, but we're going to set things up more or less so ZZ [my sister] and I will become owners of the house, with you and Dad having the right to live in it as long as you want, or if he dies and you want to move elsewhere, we can talk about that. And there will be some kind of trust or something that ZZ and I will manage, to make sure you're provided for...
Mom: Oh, great, I'm glad you're taking care of this, and as long as I have someplace to live and food to eat, I'm happy to have you and ZZ worry about managing it all.
MX: Ok, good, I just wanted to make sure nothing would take you by surprise here. I know you and Dad have had your problems, and he was upset about how you spent all that money on your apartment, but he wants to make sure you're protected and taken care of, and if something happens to him, we need to be sure we can manage things. He has enough money that I think you'll be fine, but it's not that much so we really need to be careful. He wanted ZZ and me to have power of attorney to be able to make decisions for him, but it can only be one person, so it will be ZZ, since she's closer. She's also the one on his health proxy.
Mom: Why isn't it you? You're the one who should control all that if it's not going to be me. ZZ is worse than I am when it comes to spending money!
MX: Mom, we're going to do all this together and talk about everything as a family. It's legal stuff we have to do but ZZ and I both know we have to take care of you and Dad, this isn't about us inheriting anything...
Mom: Oh, I know you girls won't let me starve, you're good daughters to step in and take care of all these things...

Ok, sounds pretty positive, right? I thought it went well. But I guess it all happened fast and my mother started to think more about it afterwards. And I kind of suspected she would. I know that what she wants, in a way, is to control her own destiny. She's sick of my dad controlling everything and making her walk on eggshells around him. It's not that she wants him to die, but in a way, she can see the bright side of that-- finally, she'd be able to do what she wants. But now her daughter is telling her that control will slip from her grasp, and in some ways I feel really bad about doing that to her.
On the other hand, my mother doesn't really want to deal with money matters. She knows she's not always good at it, she knows she's done things that seemed like a good idea at the time and ended up being a disaster. This side of her always just wanted to be a traditional wife, one for whom things are taken care of by the husband, without her having to worry. Paying bills and budgeting is a headache she doesn't really want to deal with.

But what is also key here is that my mother has an inferiority complex. It bothers her that she never went to college. My father has always openly mocked her for being dumb, pretty much. She hates feeling stupid. So after that initial conversation, she said some things to be about how she was hurt and insulted, basically, that Dad wanted to take the finances out of her hands. I kept trying to downplay the idea that she was "too dumb" to manage her own finances, just focusing on how she hadn't had experience with it, and that it would be easier for her not to have to worry, and just that the money would be protected by what we were doing. She was also insulted that Dad didn't want her to have power of attorney or be named in the health proxy, and apparently when she told one of her friends about it, they said it was "wrong" that we'd done that. I tried to say it was just better that way because all of the tension between them.

Some of her complaints about this haven't come to me, they've just been passed on by my sister. My sister and my mother can really butt heads sometimes-- they each called me after an argument they had the other day to complain about the other. My sister said Mom had gone nuts and was freaking out about the will again, but when I talked to Mom she was quite calm about it, but was hurt that ZZ had supposedly said that the money should be protected so there'd be something for their grandchildren (ZZ's kids) to inherit. Who knows what was really said!

While I was up there and we were all together, I had thought it would be a good idea to sit down together as a whole family and talk through these concerns, just to clear the air, but it never happened. When we go back to the lawyer, Mom will have to be an active and willing participant, so hopefully things will be better by then. But in the meantime, she says odd things about all of this sometimes. One of the things I did was to draw up a budget for how much my parents could spend based on their income and savings, and I told my mother I'd done this. At some point she asked "so when does that budget go into effect? Does Dad have to start following it now?" I had to explain that I was just doing it for my own information, not for some strict allowance that they'd be put on!

My mother also asked what I'd found in my father's files-- she had no idea how much money he had, and wanted to know if there were any "secret accounts." I had to break it to her that Dad's finances were quite simple, and that he'd managed to save a decent amount, but that he was not a rich man and that it would only be enough to live on if they were careful. She found this hard to believe. Because he'd never been honest and straightforward with her about his finances, she thought he was just being mean and stingy when he said he couldn't afford things. She thought he had a high-paying job, when really he just had more or less the same job his whole career and was never promoted to any sort of managerial role. I didn't look at his entire salary history, but I don't think he ever made more than a $70-80,000 salary, which is not a bad salary but not that much either, when you think of the cost of living in their town and having to put two kids through college on one income, etc.

So as always, money matters and Mom can be a tricky combination. I know she isn't always going to be happy about things, and I hope we are doing the right thing. Some people might think we should just let her do her own thing and deal with the consequences. And perhaps there is an element of selfishness driving my sister and father and me, as we're the ones who will have to pick up the pieces if Mom bankrupts herself. But I'm hoping this will all work out in a way that lets Mom live in a way that makes her feel good for as long as possible.

How much money will it take for Mom and Dad to live comfortably? Do they have enough? In the next post in this series, I will share what I learned about my Dad's retirement income and savings, and the spending budget I created.


Peachy said...

My grandmother had the same spending mentallity. Then my Grandfather got sick and they hired live-in care. When she finally had to start paying the bills she was shocked. She's finally started to conserve money and worry if there will be enough. It's an unfortunate time to start learning.

Kristen said...

I feel a great deal of compassion and kinship for you. My parents are currently going through a divorce and a lot of the same conversations are happening (and accusations). After 39 years together they never could have peace about their finances, and so my sisters and I are having to mentally prepare ourselves that someday they're going to be our responsibility. Hang in there.

Escape Brooklyn said...

It sounds as if you're doing a great job managing a stressful and awkward situation. Money and family are rarely a good combination! Thanks for sharing the experience so candidly; it makes me feel like I'm not alone in dealing with my own family drama!

T'Pol said...

Wow! What a stress on you!

Before my father passed away, there was always a shortage of money and it did cause quite a bit of tension between my parents. After dad passed away, despite the fact that the total income went down, we stopped having money problems which was really surprising. We never knew why before my uncle passed away. Mom went to help my grandma after her last son's death and she took her in with her because my grandma had noone but us and no house of her own. As mom was sorting through my uncle's documents, she found bank statements with lots of small wired amounts to my uncle from my dad. My uncle was an alcoholic and it turned out that dad was trying to take care of his brother without our knowledge. If he were open about it, my mom would not have objected to it because she is a truly good and affectionate person. She took care of all my grandparents; both her parents and my dad's mom until they all died. She even took an early retirement just to be around these elderly people. I could tell she was crushed and felt betrayed because dad kept what he did a secret. Mom has always been a responsible adult. Soi I agree with Escape Brooklyn on money and family matters.

sandra said...

I just wanted to say thank you for sharing this experience so candidly. it's giving me a lot to think about!

Karen said...

Madamme X-I so feel for you. My situation isn't as complex but I can related. My father has Alzheimer's and my mother doesn't want to deal with the money or reality for that fact. As an only child, it falls on me! Just beware that there is a lot of behavior you can't change (your mother's and your father's) all you can do is manage it as best you can. Somedays I work so hard to keep everything together and I still wind up with a pile of crap. I have stopped beating myself up about it.

I look forward to your next post. My parents have a good sum but my father doesn't have LTC insurance and it worries me since he's in really good physical health and my mother loves to spend money. Ugh!

Good luck to you and your family. You are on a difficult but interesting path.

Anonymous said...

Wow. You could be writing about me and my mom - thanks for sharing. My heart goes out to you and your entire family. It's difficult enough when life gets in the way, but having to manage people's emotions is a whole other level of challenging. Good luck with everything. My prayers are with you.

Anonymous said...

I can totally commiserate! My mom has never paid a single bill in her entire life. (She immigrated to the US in her mid 20s and lived with her godmother before marrying my dad.) My dad has always been in charge of all the money, bills, taxes, investments, etc.

Now that my mom is retired, she wants to use her entire 401k as "fun money" since both she and my dad have generous pensions. My dad will not hear of it, and it's been a point of contention ever since.

Thanks for the candid postings on these family money matters, Madame X. I hope everything works out well in the end!

Chief Family Officer said...

I just wanted to say that I'm sorry you've been going through such a difficult time. I'm glad your dad is going to be okay, and I have to tell you that I've been reading your posts with fascination - it's like a financial soap opera and so compelling.

Regardless of how things work out with your mother, I think you sound amazingly level-headed and mature, and I'm learning a lot so thank you so much for sharing your experience.

Geoff K said...

It kind of makes me sad to hear of your parents relationship and how your father kept your mother in the dark with regards to finances. Maybe it's partly their generation and maybe partly a indication of a lack of sharing in their relationship. If/when I get married I hope to share everything, including finances, like you do with this blog.

Sarah said...

Thanks for sharing your story openly. It's a difficult situation. I have to say, I feel pretty bad for your mom. Given the history, it does sort of seem like the family has taken a vote of "no confidence" in her. I've read your prior posts about your parents so I understand how you, your dad, and your sister see it ... but it's like all decision-making has been taken from your mom. Even if she deflected all financial decisions to you or your sister, or just made one bone-headed mistake after the other , she probably feels pretty rotten right now that she wasn't there to take care of your dad when he was having a problem, and even worse that things are being set up so she doesn't have to.

Sherry said...

Hi Madame X. It's been a while since I last commented, but I've been following your blog on google reader. I think that all your efforts to take care of your family are incredibly considerate. I'm sorry that you have to go through such tough times, but you are handling it with remarkable grace under pressure. Your family is lucky to have you and I truly hope that things work out for the best. :-)

JP said...

Madame X,
You should be very proud of yourself. You are doing an incredible job dealing with a difficult situation. You are an incredible woman and daughter and I hope you take a minute to reflect on what a great job you are doing.

My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

Anonymous said...

If your sister said something about making sure there was money for her kids, that's pretty crummy. It drives me nuts when people feel entitled to an inheritance.

I guess I am oversensitive to this because I feel like right now my aunts and uncles are conspiring to make my Grandma look incompetent so they can control her cash. Yeah, so my Grandma is spending money on trips and new appliances, she's been frugal her whole life and is finally treating herself. I shudder to think of my kids taking over my money someday.

That being said though, it sounds like your help is coming from a true desire to help your parents.

Anonymous said...

The only part I find irritating is where you say your dad, "had to put two kids through college" - Hello, couldn't you & your sister get a job or a student loan?

Parents should never shortchange their retirement by paying for something their kids should be easily able to do.

Madame X said...

@anon 5:15-- both my sister and I contributed to our college costs with work and loans. My dad values education very highly, and I think it meant a lot to him to have us go to good schools. He wouldn't have wanted us to work more than we did if it would have interfered with our classes. I say he "had to" put his kids through college, but I think he was relatively happy to do so, at least compared to many other family expenses where he put his foot down and said no.