By Pat Irwin
Jim and Margie met on a romantic Mediterranean cruise and continued to see each other when they returned to their respective homes. After a year of long-distance dating, they have decided to move in together. Adorable?
Jim is 81 and Margie is 84. Does it still sound adorable?
Given increased life expectancies and rising rates of later-life divorce, “’Til death do us part” is no longer a sure thing.
Romantic flings and bold new relationships are a growing phenomenon and potential causes of joy, worry and conflict for adult children. Often unsure of what to expect or how to act around a new partner, they can be anxious to protect their parent from damaging his or her heart—or chequebook. This article looks at a few home truths for everyone to keep in mind.
In an ironic twist, it’s your parent rather than you arranging dates, talking about a special friend and, if you’re lucky, looking for your approval. And, yikes—even having a sex life. Now you’re the one judging, asking questions and trying to figure out what’s going on, especially if your parent thinks who he or she is with is none of your business.
Well, let’s hark back to those teenage nerves and angst, and remember a time when you felt misunderstood, unfairly judged and interrogated about your motives for seeing one partner or another. Step back a minute and put yourself in your parent’s shoes. Take the long view and don’t pass judgement too quickly. Ask yourself a few of these questions:
• Have you truly grasped your parent’s social challenges, and wondered if he or she might be lonely or feeling left out as a single rather than a couple?
• Are your parent’s friends still around, and do they have the same interests and ability to get out and about? Sometimes old friends are restricted by health, financial resources, travel distances or caregiving responsibilities.
• Who can your parent confide in or share dinner, travel or a movie with?
The “yuk” factor
Try not to act as if a few dates are a life sentence. If you’re wildly positive, you might scare a potential partner away—but if you’re negative, your parent might become as defiant as you were at 16! Keep a sense of humor and make an honest effort to get to know the new “beau” without comparisons.
And, yes, your parent and his or her new friend might well be having sex—but the real question is: “Is it safe, healthy sex?” Seniors can be discreet about their sexual preferences and activity levels, which often leads us to think they’ve lost interest in sex. Contrary to popular belief, however, this is often not the case. The reality is that older people can lack younger generations’ levels of condom use—especially as there is no risk of pregnancy—and may not have received much education around sexually transmitted diseases, which does put them at risk. If you’re not comfortable discussing this subject, try looking up some educational materials and leaving them around the house.
Wherever you go for Shabbat, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, New Year or birthday celebrations, having a parent assume a new “couplehood” will definitely mean changes and new traditions. Blended families are a challenge whether the kids are teens, in university or aging boomers themselves. Adult children and grandchildren should rise to the occasion and try to be as accepting, interested and flexible as possible during the early days. There’s no point in putting up barriers that will lead to hard feelings or isolation for the new couple.
However, it might not be all sweetness and light. Moving in together, sharing or selling assets and leaving family and friends behind for a new life can be risky. What if Jim and Margie, our cruising lovebirds, decide to leave town and prove their love and trust by naming each other as their power of attorney for care. What do you need to know?
Power of attorney for property
Your parent can name anyone as their power of attorney for property. If your parent becomes incapable of making his or her own decisions then this person will manage any property and finances, and pay bills. This attorney does not have carte blanche to spend as they would wish; he or she has a fiduciary duty to comply with previously stated wishes, and the attorney is only invoked if the principal is unable to act due to a temporary or permanent disability, as determined by a capacity assessor. If a family suspects malfeasance, it can apply to courts to remove and replace the attorney.
Will you still get your inheritance? Maybe yes—and maybe no. As long as your parents have mental capacity, they can re-marry, spend their money and change their wills as they choose. Parents are adults and even though adult children may feel “entitled,” inheritance is not assured.
Power of attorney for care
The first flush of infatuation can fade quickly in the cold light of day—or disability. Illness radically alters the balance of any relationship, and a new partner might not be prepared to deal with increasing demands and responsibilities.
Common-law couples are often, but not always, entitled to make medical decisions in the event of incapacity; ultimately these decisions rest with power of attorney for personal care, which can be anyone that your parent chooses. As with the power of attorney for property, a parent may initially appoint a family member, but can draw up new power of attorney at any time and need not inform you of the change. Fortunately, medical decisions are not made in isolation; medical staff routinely confer with colleagues and family members, especially for major decisions.
Under Ontario’s Family Law Act, couples may be deemed spouses after three years, as demonstrated by evidence of financial interdependence, a sexual relationship, shared residence and household responsibilities, use of assets or vacationing together. Common-law partners do not have automatic rights to property under family law. If a common-law spouse dies without leaving a will, his or her bank accounts, income and pensions will all be frozen until probate is complete, and the surviving common-law spouse might not be entitled to reside in the “matrimonial” home.
To reiterate: In the event of one partner’s death, claims can be made on property, the “matrimonial” home, pensions and investments—but there are no automatic property rights. In order to inherit, the common-law spouse must be named by his or her partner in the will or as the beneficiary of an asset.
So let’s look at a couple of interesting situations:
Q. Grandpa’s house sold within days, for a $1,000,000-plus. But today he announced he and his live-in carer are married! Has he lost his mind?
It’s hard not to panic at news like this, but slow down and try to establish the facts. For example, does Grandpa believe that since the carer is living in, their co-habitation means they are now common-law spouses? Do some research to determine the nature of their relationship and living arrangements, and whose opinions might be influencing him.
Q. Can Grandpa be making an informed choice? Is there undue influence?
First, establish his cognitive status asking the family doctor or a capacity assessor for an assessment. Were family members aware of the extent of the relationship—if it does indeed exist? Is this behaviour out of character? Is there a sense of influence, marked by an unwillingness, fear or hesitation with respect to discussing the matter? Have other events, such as health or medication changes, occurred recently?
If dementia is suspected, act immediately to implement the powers of attorney for property and for care. If dementia has already been diagnosed, a case may be made that Grandpa was not mentally capable of making such a commitment.
Mom has a “beau”! A fellow at her retirement home sits with her at meals, visits in the evenings and has told his kids all about her. However they’re both on the dementia ward and I’m not sure how keen she really is…
Dementia often seems to create a new person inhabiting the body of a loved one you knew so well. This “new” person can form attachments that might be puzzling or hurtful. Visiting family members can be crushed when they’re ignored in favour of a preferred caregiver or recent friend.
As joyful as a new relationship can be, relatives should be vigilant that the relationship is in fact welcome. There is zero tolerance for abuse—which need not include physical contact—in all retirement and nursing homes.
Watch carefully to see how your mom acts around her new friend. Look at her body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, confidence and safety. If anything is amiss, act immediately by alerting your mom’s caregivers to the relationship (although they are probably already aware of the budding romance), talking to them about your concerns and implementing some discrete supervision. Even if the relationship appears consensual, enlist their help in monitoring the situation for changes. Above all, be absolutely sure the relationship is consensual and, if it is not, take immediate steps to protect your mom.
The real deal
Finding romance and companionship is truly life affirming and energizing, whatever your age. Do your best to make a parent’s new relationship a positive experience for everyone by being open-minded and reasonable. Finally, help your own family to understand the new circumstances, and what love and support your mom or dad may need. l
Pat Irwin, BA, AICB, CPCA, is President of ElderCareCanada.