The privilege of living longer is not without challenges. Time and opportunity to cruise the waterways of Europe doesn’t entirely mask the daily effort to maintain a healthy mind and body, or to manage finances for an indeterminate term of life. Unpredictable government and market changes can limit prospects carefully planned for in kinder times. Mature age women without their own homes are now recognised as a cohort likely to end up homeless.
Large as these factors loom in the lives of elders, they pale to insignificance besides the sometimes overwhelming, disturbing challenges that arise in shifting relationships within families. Living longer can mean losing touch with adult offspring, grandchildren and great grandchildren as power over decisions is lost to, or assumed by, middle aged children. Money, assets and access become bones of contention as people live longer and families become impatient for their passing. So much so that governments are recognising the plight of the elderly by providing ready access to help in circumstances of physical, financial and psychological abuse.
All of this has arisen in the context of rapid demographic changes that challenge an individual’s capacity to adapt. In little over a century we have gained an extra half a life again – from an average 50 years to marginally over 80 years. Understanding the context and pace of change is crucial to making good decisions from which all can benefit. Poor decisions unfairly burden another – at great social and financial cost.
Amongst rapid change, two factors stand out: midlife has become pivotal for transforming to become a generative mentor; and new styles of ageing are crucial to living later years happily and productively. Inter-relationship between these two factors holds the key to harmonious relations later in life.
A comprehensive understanding of these two factors is important if we are to address the challenges that a longer life presents, though much effort is needed to attain success.
Money and assets
Family feuds over assets that hit the media are the tip of what seems a growing undercurrent of abuse of elders. Recently, a 90 year old man who had been successful in business, was challenged in court by two of his adult children for control of his $10 million assets on the grounds of his alleged mental incapacity. He had been so harassed by them that he had found refuge with a third child who would protect him and his money. From a superficial reading of the situation, it appears that the two had grown impatient with his longevity that hampered their access to his resources, no longer regarded him with respect or affection, and could not wait for him to die. Hardly what a person needs at 90!
In another instance, a 75 year old woman at a post office addressing a letter, spontaneously disclosed to two other women undertaking a similar task, her distress, humiliation and embarrassment at the state of the relationship with her 46 year old daughter, a divorcee with three children. The letter containing funds had to be tracked, as the daughter usually failed to acknowledge receipt. Not only that, the daughter, an only child, had been urging her widowed mother to sell her house in the city and buy one down the coast so that she and her family could move in with her.
Therein lies the dilemma for many elderly – how far can one reasonably help adult children who show little aptitude for helping themselves? Especially when helping impinges so heavily on one’s own limited resources towards the end of life? In fact (referring to my Maturity Model), at 75, the woman’s primary responsibility is to care for herself to the best of her ability. At 46, the daughter needs to become responsible for herself and children, to be challenged to generate alternative solutions other than a hand in her mother’s pocket.
Money was again lost when a professional legal couple diddled committed parents of retirement income in the process of extricating from a housing arrangement turned sour. The threat of losing contact with grandchildren was used to avert any legal action by the parents to retrieve what was rightfully theirs.
Family who had previously demonstrated little interest in their elderly mother became particularly attentive when she received a sizable bequest and suffered an injury. Preying on the elderly woman’s temporary incapacity, particular items disappeared from her home, and her bank account was manipulated for ready access. Already well-endowed adult daughters carefully crafted concern to mask greed.
Physical and psychological
From reports from the Oakden Nursing Home in South Australia, it is clear that physical and psychological abuse is not restricted to family members and can be prevalent in the way residents are cared for in retirement homes. In worst case scenarios, elderly can face physical harm, even earlier death. In such instances, it is family’s care and support that ultimately brings justice to such situations.
For some elderly parents, the behaviour of their adult children has become a cause for embarrassment and an object of jest, though initially hurtful and destructive as intended. In recent incidents that come to mind, behaviour can manifest in weaponising grandchildren, denying access under the phoniest of allegations that are both humourless and childish, demonstrated in the following:
- A seven page letter from a 50 year old daughter to her 80 year old mother outlining a litany of the older woman’s alleged life failures
- Denial of access to grandchildren because of the alleged inadequacy of birthday gifts and greetings
- “Creative destruction” of a mother by a son channelling repeated phoney allegations by his wife, rendering intolerable a once amicable relationship, shamelessly dividing and destroying the family cohesion built over a life time of hard work
- A three page email to grandparents outlining their alleged failures as reason for denying access to the grandchildren.
One woman subject to such behaviour disclosed she was at first hurt and too embarrassed to tell anyone until others observed the situation at first hand for themselves at a family event. By then, acceptance of the situation’s inevitability freed her to get on with her own life, devoid of unnecessary conflict.
Almost invariably the demonising of elders and pursuant financial and psychological abuse is merely a distraction from, or an attempt to shore up, a troubled relationship with a difficult, immature partner compounded by midlife crisis. Demonising elders seems preferable, projecting onto external forces, rather than dealing with, and coming to terms with the reality of imperfections in themselves and their relationships.
The tone of all the allegations is authoritative – empowered midlifer to disempowered elderly – brooking no countervailing point of view. Elders are denied discussion. According to J S Mills, the silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. God like! Midlifers can be ‘immune from observable truth’. All sense of humour (if they ever had one) disappears.
By all accounts, this cohort of mid-lifers, the most advanced of generations, the most technologically privileged and connected, have come to a medieval predisposition that predates the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act, which allowed a person charged with offence to present their point of view. Not so now in family machinations of shifting relationships. Disempowered elderly are expected to “cop it”, without a voice. Being deprived of the fruits of a lifetime of hard work, energy and goodwill in affirmation of grandchildren, holds no sway against the pooled ignorance of the horizontally connected most privileged and best endowed mid-lifers ever.
Shades of greying
Of course, in the continuing adjustment of relationships as people age, the elderly must also adapt their own attitude and decision-making in keeping with their age, condition and circumstances, while remaining in charge of their own life and circumstances.
Mid-lifers who have cut off contact with their parents and in-laws complain they have done so because of intrusion and divisiveness, indicative of elderly who have not attained the grace to let go of responsibility and control of their adult children, reluctant to trust the next generation. Some elders become demanding, with a sense of entitlement that load onto others obligations that may be impossible to meet. Others of means are known to manipulate family members angling for bequest. Circumstances as outlined complicate the process of ageing gracefully and generatively, at the same time as compounding for mid-lifers resolution of the midlife tasks as they attempt to lay the groundwork for their own later years.
Refreshing adolescent tasks
My intention in writing my book Becoming: the ordinary person’s road map to life’s big decisions was to help willing people trying to do the right thing gain confidence in making important decisions, especially in major transition phases of life.
Always I have felt that refreshing the tasks of adolescence is a great exercise: rebooting our capacity for mutuality and intimacy. We can regenerate tolerance, respect, friendship, love, cooperation, intuition, and flexibility – all skills that enhance relationships under challenge. Perhaps these skills can soften impatience, intolerance and greed that can overflow into elder abuse.
Elder Abuse Prevention Unit: https://www.eapu.com.au/ or phone 1300 651 192