It’s a Beautiful Thing?


A few years back we accompanied an elderly client and her family through assisted living, nursing and then hospice care. When I first met Mary (not the real name of our 80-something client), I thought her an attractive and vibrant woman, full of fun and just a bit of flirtatiousness. I liked her when I met her and her oldest son, Frank (not his real name) at the assisted living facility, but Frank seemed embarrassed by his mother’s friendly behavior. After spending a few minutes with Mary, I could see the familiar signs of early dementia that brought her to this facility. Prior to her admission, Mary lived independently for several years after her husband died, supported by a cadre of friends. Mary shopped, traveled, played cards and hung-out with a group that had been together for years. But, as her behavioral problems increased, the group became less able to support her.

Mary had a second, younger son. Bobby (not his name) was mom’s favorite but lived a few hundred miles away. Frank, on the other hand, lived nearby but was not emotionally close to his mother. He was his dad’s favorite. The alignment of the parents’ affections seemed somewhat reversed – Mary was fun-loving and passionate but favored Bobby who was actually serious-minded and pragmatic. Her late husband, like Bobby, favored Frank who was much more like his mom. I surmised that the parents were attracted to the qualities in their sons that they liked in each other. Needless to say, these alignments did not make for smooth caregiving.

By the time Mary went to assisted living her sons were her only support. Bobby was away but she wanted him nearby. Mary could occasionally force a visit by complaining about Frank’s lack of interest. Frank actually visited fairly often and called even more often but had a difficult time watching his mother’s deterioration. Mary’s behavior seemed to hit a nerve and Frank found it hard to sit with her. Bobby would make the drive while getting more and more upset of the perceived lack of caring and support from his brother for his mother. Old relationship wounds emerged. Every decision was questioned and argued. Finally, they could not be in the same room together. Mary was clearly affected by this feuding and was often brought into the arguments. She became more detached and eventually refused to eat or speak. The doctors, perhaps wanting to stay out of the arguments, suggested it was just the dementia.

I decided to try a little soft intervention. I talked to the sons and asked them to put aside their divisions and try to work together. I suggested that if mom saw them getting along it might help her feel more secure. They might be able to talk to her about things that really mattered. To my surprise, the sons listened to me and met at the facility. They talked for hours about “everything” – even things that happened years ago. They both felt better. They thanked me. They thought it was really a great start to fixing their relationship – and beginning to help their mother. I, of course, felt like a genius. It was a beautiful thing!

My time of genius was only to last 12 hours before they were angrier than ever. I was disappointed. What was I really trying to accomplish? This was a family in transition like so many other families we work with. Could they repair the fact that dad had passed and mom was failing? Of course not, but did there have to be all the blame and anger? It seemed to me that each son had the potential for intimacy. During dad’s final illness, Frank was able to spend hours with dad and got him to eat when no one else could. Frank, however, found it impossible to spend an hour with his mom. Who knows, maybe he saw himself in her and could not bring himself to face it. The fact that he didn’t feel especially close to mom may have made it more difficult. Bobby believed Frank was “responsible” for his mother’s deterioration. Bobby decided to move mom nearer him. Mom never made it. More quickly than anyone imagined, came hospice, withdrawal of care and the end of her life. Mary died peacefully with Bobby by her side. The funeral planning was not peaceful and new arguments arose which were likely the final straw for these brothers and this family. Neither brother obtained closure. What was the lesson here? Separation is difficult? You can only help those who are not like you? Blaming or being blamed doesn’t help with grief? Maybe it’s that families need to discuss what is actually taking place rather than living in the complications of what is taking place. Living wills help with that. They encourage conversation about what is happening to a parent in the present tense. For Bobby and Frank it was easier to blame than to accept the impending end of their family and their identities. They would no longer be “sons.” They would no longer have a mother. The sad thing is that they shared this loss and likely could have helped each other with it – and perhaps helped mom to a better and more peaceful death. If they had only been able to get to the real issues it could have been a beautiful thing.

mm About Leonard L. Shober

Leonard L. Shober has focused a quarter century on representing clients in their estates and tax matters. He began his legal career in an estate planning practice. However, his interest in taxes and estate planning led him to pursue a Master of Laws (LLM) from Temple which he completed in 1994. Len continued his estate and tax practice which ultimately led to a focus on the needs of the elderly and disabled. At Shober & Rock, Len focuses on elder law, tax and estate planning and estate and trust administration.

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