Parents Divorced, Separated or Estranged?
By Mary Bart
We assume our parents will be married forever and that we’ll care for them together as they aged. However, some of us will have to deal with a different reality for better or worse. Let’s look at the potential impacts of a “grey divorce” on you and your family, and provide some suggestions for keeping all the balls in the air.
Where you live and your available resources will determine the type and frequency of care you offer to both parents. A parent who lives close by may naturally receive more care than one living further away.
Draw up a separate to-do list for each parent. If possible, create weekly plans and set priorities. Be aware of what happens to the other parent while you are not caring for them. How will they manage?
Liaise with the other family. If either of your parents is now in a new relationship, you may have even more care-management logistics. Managing these issues in a business-like, organized fashion will help you pace your responsibilities, decrease your stress and reduce your guilt. It will help you see that you are doing the best job you can.
Having a new blended family can add layers of opinions and challenges, but can also provide you with supportive, kind and helpful people to work with. Caregiving with step siblings does not have to be impossible if some basics guidelines are followed.
• Plan ahead. Have those difficult family conversations before any parent or stepparent urgently needs care. This will help determine what type of care and medical treatment they would like, and clarify their values and beliefs. • Document or film these conversations as a reminder for the future, in case conflicts arise and important decisions need to be made. • Have each parent talk not just about what they want for themselves, but also what they would want the blended families to do on behalf of their new spouse. • Who is named in the power of attorney (PoA) documents? Is a second person named? • Be respectful and flexible, and make an honest effort to work together.
Emotions run deep and you may have been shocked or blindsided by your parents’ divorce. Depending on your relationships with each parent, you may be ready, willing and able to help them or you might prefer to walk away and let someone else do the job.
Not all adult children will have the same sense of responsibility or obligation; don’t be surprised if siblings don’t want to participate in a parent’s care. If your emotions are taking over and you feel unproductive or angry, seek professional help. It may help you find a calm harbour in the ongoing caregiving storm.
Caregiving for parents who live separately can gobble up both time and money. Consider purchasing long-term care insurance that will help pay for out-of-pocket care expenses. These insurance policies can be beneficial when a loved one cannot live alone and perform daily functions. Don’t let the name of this type of insurance fool you. It has nothing to do with living in a long-term care facility, and everything to do with helping to fund care.
Investigate the types of care and discuss options. What does an agency charge to help with care, prepare meals or take your parent to appointments? What are the costs of retirement homes and long-term care facilities in your area? Is it an option to pay a fair wage to a family member to provide care?
Legal issues often come as a surprise to families who are dealing with a parent in a new relationship, separated, divorced or into their second or third marriage. Lawyer Kristine J. Anderson, partner at Bales Beall LLP, is an estate litigator who deals with these types of situations on a daily basis. Anderson often sees the adult children of second marriages grow to dislike each other as they fight to ensure their parent is cared for financially.
In Anderson’s experience, people often name the adult children of their previous marriage as PoA. The wife will name her adult kids and the husband will name his adult kids. This can be a problem when one of the spouses in a second marriage is deemed incapable. As per the PoA, the adult child of the previous marriage will manage what type of care the parent receives and how it is funded, leaving the new spouse on the sidelines.
Anderson reminds us that separation agreements are not divorces and, since a couple may still be legally married, a spouse could still be named as the beneficiary of assets such as saving plans and insurance policies. Removing someone named in PoA documents can be stressful, complicated and very expensive.
After a separation, divorce or the death of their spouse, older adults can be vulnerable to predatory marriages or become victims of elder abuse. They may be seeking companionship and someone to care for them, without realizing that they’re being used.
Anderson suggests being careful about any new relationships, especially when entering into a second or third marriage. “The capacity to marry is quite low and the consequences of marriage
can be quite high,” she says.
Share everything with your lawyer. Lawyers need to have the full picture in order to offer the best advice. These open, honest conversations about legal and financial situations will help families better understand the law.
Anderson has some final thoughts: “Don’t let life happen to you. We are active participants in what our plans should be.”
Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an Internet-based charity that offers education and support to family caregivers.