We Need to Talk About Mum & Dad – That’s Why We Are Here Now

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Our elders should be at the centre of all discussions and decision-making. It may sound obvious but many of us make decisions about parents without involving them, even if they are in the same room. Don’t, or they will form a resistance movement. Whenever a course of action is suggested as to the best management of our elders’ affairs, it should always be considered and decided by them.

Most importantly, listen to your parent. Delivering an ultimatum is neither nice nor fair. Having said that, the best way to make sure your parents are at the centre of all discussion is to get in early. As the saying goes, today is the youngest you and your parents will ever be. Or, as my mum warns, the last five years of your life is like the first five years – everything happens really quickly. We grow from a newborn who can’t do anything to a person who can walk and talk and think and do and be in the blink of an eye.

With the elderly it is the same, only backwards, and at the other end. Mum hasn’t even seen Benjamin Button.

They must be at the centre of all discussion. If you feel your parent is being manipulated or coerced by anyone (other members of the family or in-laws or anyone else – and sometimes they can be way outside the family circle) and you need help to manage the situation, you can apply for your parent to have a public guardian or financial manager appointed. This person should make sure that any vested interests do not overwhelm the interests of your parent. Remember, in the very best conversations, everyone contributes a little, everyone learns a little, everyone reveals themselves a little, all without fear of judgement or censure. Like exchanging recipes, only more comforting.

Family planning

Birth families are not easy, except for mine, which is pretty well perfect. We all have a great relationship with each other, possibly because we live nowhere near each other. We occasionally check in to see who has how many children and who is married to whom, and whether we are in the same state or the same country. At Christmas we generally get together and are surprised at just how many of us there are, and the variability of our dietary requirements, which include nothing you personally have put on the table. If you talk to anyone who deals with the families of someone in aged care they will tell you that family members assume distinct roles. I have summarised them here.

The CFO (the Chief Family Officer)

This is the person with all the bravado, normally a daughter who does all the hard work. Who organises everything. Makes sure everything gets done.

The FIFO (the Fly In, Fly Out)

The family member from interstate or elsewhere who comes in, bangs all the drums, ‘Mum’s got to have the best’, ‘I can’t believe what you guys are thinking’, and blah, blah, blah, and then just disappears.

The Bad Sibling

There may be a bad sibling. Well, not always, none in my family, of course, but often there is a bad sibling, and there are lots of stories about the bad sibling. I love bad sibling stories. They make me feel better about myself. Like the bad sibling who rang the executor of his mother’s will and said ‘Mum has died, I want to see the will, can you email it to me?’

The executor was very close to the mother; he had been her accountant for years, and he had no idea she had died, and he was very saddened. But he also doesn’t hand out wills without a little due diligence, like checking to see if his client was actually deceased. So he rang her daughter to extend his condolences. He said, ‘I am so sorry to hear your mum has passed away’, to which she replied, ‘She died five minutes ago. We are still in her room.’ Bad sibling. Richard III type sibling. Mwahahaha!

The Child

This is the sibling who, in the presence of parents, becomes a child again. One of these people said to me, ‘Growing old as your parents grow old is not good. I am still animating the relationship I had with them when I was a child. I still have the usual responses and behaviour and haven’t had a chance to grow into my own maturity. My inner child is still active. I think you have a chance to grow up after they die. You can then change things, observe things.’

And at first I thought, Oh, yes! I get that. That is my problem. That is why I keep doing embarrassing things – I am still animating my inner child and, hallelujah, I can now blame it on my parents for staying alive. Win, win, win! But then I realise this is a reaction from my inner child, and so, after I have controlled my inner child by kicking her in the shin and saying, ‘I am not playing with you anymore’, my adult self takes over.

The One We Don’t Talk About

Then there is the aloof, cold, non-empathetic sibling. Better known as the psychopath. The one who, when the family says, ‘Shall we call Voldemort and tell him what’s happening, has anyone heard from him this decade?’ we all decide not to bother him. ‘He won’t want to know anyway. Remember when he sold our bicycles?’ And everyone has a little silent moment of relief.

Walkie Talkie Family member (The WTF)

I am pretty sure this is me. I like to think I am the CFO, but I am really the WTF.

On a good day this is simply a matter of communications. I talk the walk and walk the talk. Often with emotion and drama and hand gestures and phone calls overheard by everyone else in Aldi. I don’t always walk the walk. But this is not walk avoidance. It is not because I don’t want to do whatever has to be done, it is simply because I know something needs to be done but I don’t know how to do it, and sometimes, true confession, I wish someone else would do it. And that is why we are now here. With this book. This is a self-help book for me to learn how not to neglect my parents, because I am ‘busy’, or because I think they can do everything for themselves. Hey, they did when they were in their thirties, why not in their nineties? The corollary to this is to compensate with a frenzy of over- involvement when I still don’t know exactly what to do.

My sister, who really is the CFO (even though she is younger than me, how does that work?) said to me when I was getting upset about some home care details and paperwork and the whole, deranged, here-be-dragons aged care landscape:

‘Take a step back, Jean, everything is going fine. Mum and Dad are happy. Don’t rock the boat.’ When this sort of thing happens, my inner child wants to sulk. My bad sibling wants to say, ‘Well you can all bugger off and do it yourself, excuse ME for caring!’ And then pour myself a drink. My inner CFO wants to ring up other members of the family for support.

These multiple personalities must be shown the door. Looking after your folks, when the time comes, is not about ME or, if there are siblings, about US and our sibling rivalries that began with one particular sibling being far too gorgeous and popular at school, and certain sisters picking on the younger brother (we pinned him to the wall of the garage with a car, why does he still flinch when he remembers that?).

It is about THEM, Mum and Dad. Otherwise we will just be random people out of their comfort zone, trying to work out who to trust, doing dangerous and stupid things they have never done before, navigating the hospital system for example, based on watching every episode of House.

Who they are, and what they want?

Surprisingly, I have found that many siblings have very different perceptions of their parents – who they are, and what they want. When I talk with my siblings about our experience of childhood, we might have been brought up by completely different people.

If there is any argument within families as to the right course of action, bring in an independent professional, a good one, an MMA (that’s mixed martial arts) referee if necessary, whose primary motivation will be the interests of your parents, and who will put your parents first, and who says ‘I think this is really an excuse. Shut up. Grow up. It’s not about you.’

Because yes, it is a comfort to know that Mum and/or Dad are still available to soothe and counsel and be the grownups, and, yes, many people spend much of their emotional lives still seeking their parents’ approval, seeking, seeking, seeking, but it is better we know and appreciate that we are also the grownups now, ask any shrink. Because sooner or later, ready or not, we really will have to be the adult, making decisions for our parents, just as they once did for us.

Key takeaways

Discussions, conversations, chats and meetings are essential in caring for our elders.

They are not interventions; they are a team effort, a selfhelp strategic meeting with a support group.
The elders set the agenda. They provide a vehicle to discuss how to best manage getting on. They are the start of making plans. Pre-plans. Rough sketches. Planning is good. Planning can help us in a crisis or in a gradual unravelling to make the best of all situations.

Ask the elders what they hope for, and what they fear. Talking with your elders about their wellbeing should be a constant check-in process. If your elders seem not to be coping, or are unhappy or unwell, it may be time for a family hug. The elders must not feel ambushed. Avoid distractions from family dynamics.

Make a list of what needs to be discussed, in consultation with the elders. Think about what they want to talk about. Always put your elders at the centre of all discussion. Listen to them and give them time. Listen to each other.

Never, ever let your elders feel that they are a burden, or an embarrassment, or helpless or mute.

It is time for selfless family co-operation, and good luck with that. We should try family empathy once.

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