American families are often scattered across the country. Kids grow up, find opportunities they like in other places and move away. The parents may stay put, happy to remain where they’ve lived most of their lives. Then aging happens. And with it, risks no one really thought about.
At AgingParents.com, where we advise families about age-related issues, we see this repeatedly. A concerned adult child in one state sees red flags of Mom or Dad being in trouble in their home state and it’s far away. What to do? Here’s a real-life example:
Zita is in her 50’s working full time, and generally doing fine in her life. She has an historically difficult brother, Rocky, who has been estranged from Mom for six years. They ceased contact after Rocky visited Mom and was reported to be horribly verbally abusive to her, leaving her crying for days. Zita did what she could to repair the damage in her visits to Mom and encouraged Mom to cut off contact with Rocky. Mom did. Both Zita and Rocky live several states away from Mom.
Mom Has Dementia
As the six years passed with no contact from Rocky, Mom developed memory loss and confusion. She was diagnosed with dementia. She moved into a nice assisted living home and was adjusting well. Then Rocky showed up out of nowhere. He told her she had to come and live with him. He was work disabled and probably just wanted her money. He took her out for a meal and upon returning, took Mom’s purse and refused to give it back. He withheld her medication. She had no ID, credit card or money. She did have a cell phone and she called Zita.
Zita took off work, and immediately flew out to see Mom. She was very upset when Mom told her that Rocky demanded that Mom come live with him, like it or not and he was going to get her to sign a Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA), giving him full authority. Zita needed advice. We urged her to get Mom to sign a DPOA appointing Zita immediately. She did so. We advised her that leaving Mom there, vulnerable to manipulation by Rocky was simply not safe. She needed to give notice at the home and move Mom closer to her right away. She did so.
Zita and another family member took care of Mom for a few weeks while Zita searched for a suitable seniors’ home for Mom. Meanwhile, Rocky, who appeared to be increasingly angry and irrational, told Mom he was coming to pick her up and take her to a family gathering hours away. Zita had to take action to stop him.
What Zita Could Do
We advised Zita to email Rocky and let him know that Mom was not going to attend the gathering, as her dementia made it too hard for her to enjoy such a thing. Mom forgets what Rocky told her by the next day. She is easily confused and overwhelmed.
Zita then blocked Rocky from Mom’s cell phone, as he kept calling and pressuring her to come with him. She will not reveal Mom’s whereabouts to Rocky but expects that he will eventually find out, show up and try to take her away with him. She has the authority to stop him but it may take further legal action to fully protect Mom.
Legal Options For Zita
Zita recognizes that Rocky, with his history of verbal and emotional abuse of Mom, is probably just after her savings account and her pension checks. He is unemployed. If his behavior to pressure Mom or interfere with her care escalates, she has some choices.
One: She can seek a protective order from the court against Rocky, trying for no access or limited access for him to visit Mom. She would aim for a court order that if Rocky is allowed to visit, it would be only with supervision by someone in authority.
Two: She can seek guardianship (called conservatorship in CA) over Mom, which is a very significant step. That could become contentious with Rocky objecting, but the evidence of what he has done favors Zita’s request. That is a drastic and expensive step, but it would allow Zita total control over Rocky’s contact, visitation, or other communication with Mom. It may be a last resort.
Zita is suffering the effects of having to do so much so fast, and in the face of an unstable sibling who seems to believe he can do whatever he wants. She is paying the price, not just financially from loss of work and bonuses, but emotionally. Her health is suffering. Her stress has skyrocketed. We advised her about many ways to get support as a caregiver, and protector of her Mom. She bears this burden without any dependable help from any other family member. She is doing all she can now to take care of herself.
A Plan Is Needed
When your aging parent lives at a distance, it’s very important to talk with them about what to do if their health declines. We can’t live in denial that this can happen! Families can do planning in advance. They can decide if it’s best for an aging loved one to move closer, particularly after loss of a partner or spouse and declining health. Some adult children move in with the aging parent. Leaving her alone can be a setup for danger from predators like Rocky.
Who Has Legal Authority?
A very important matter to discuss is the aging parent’s estate plan. Zita’s Mom had given authority (DPOA) to both of her adult children on her legal paperwork. That would have been a nightmare for Zita being forced to make decisions with Rocky. After the terrible incident of abuse of Mom by Rocky, it would have been appropriate for Mom to change the Durable Power of Attorney to remove him. It can be revoked. No one brought this up nor suggested she do it. When the crisis came, Zita had to scramble to get the new DPOA in a rush and under great pressure before Rocky could get his hands on Mom again.
Zita has Mom safe for now and things have not escalated with Rocky as yet. But she expects he will act out of desperation. He wants control and can’t get it. She is facing the difficulty with courage and acting fast when needed. We expect she will prevail.
Heed the warning in this story. If your aging parent is far away, don’t expect that they’ll be perfectly fine to the end of their lives. Do discuss the possibilities of loss of independence with them. Take leadership. The burden of ignoring the potential dangers could fall on you.