The parent shut out

Reading time: 3 min(s)

There is nothing like an ageing, frail and dependent parent to bring out repressed enmities and jealousies in adult children leading the ‘caring child’ to shut out the ‘concerned child’.

Sometimes, the role of the caring child is a function of luck or logistics. They happen to live near mum or dad and are, consequently, conveniently able to provide the hands on care so often required. Meantime, the other children are spread all over the country, if not the world, anxiously awaiting reports from the caring front.

At other times however, as luck would have it, the most available child can be the worst candidate for this crucial role. They may not be well suited for the role emotionally, or even financially. They can also feel emboldened, for example, by the knowledge that their parent has actually chosen to bestow upon them legal responsibility when the parent appoints them as their Enduring Power of Attorney. They can also believe, both because of the power they have and because of a certain martyrdom syndrome, that they are entitled, occasionally, if not regularly, to take advantage of the situation.

Because the law does not create a regime requiring transparency and accountability for the conduct of enduring powers of attorney and because our whistleblowing laws are so inept, what was once, perhaps, a noble commitment by the caring child becomes a tool of enrichment and a weapon of exclusion.

From our extensive experience in later life family dynamics, there is one pervasive technique that distinguishes the gestation of an abusive child and raises alarm bells – isolating or shutting out other naturally interested people. Keeping mum or dad hermetically sealed from the outside world is the obvious way to avoid scrutiny and accountability.

A particularly poignant case of this practice was recently exposed in Tasmania where a daughter (and the son-in-law) had kept her mother in a shipping container without necessary care locked away from ‘interfering biddy bodies’. The trail of tragedy revealed in this case was truly inhuman and inhumane. It contained, however, the familiar prevailing theme – isolation.

To be fair however, some caring children will engage in what they perceive as well intentioned isolation. Away from prying eyes, they can enjoy the sympathy and admiration of outsiders for the herculean task they have assumed. They can want to avoid the input or offers of help from their siblings because, in their eyes, it can only complicate or disrupt the carefully crafted routine they have established for their parent.

Be that as it may, excluding or orchestrating a parent’s contact with the outside world does nothing positive for the quality of life of that parent. It exacerbates an already divided family and can create a maelstrom of negative emotions for the parent who can often feel hapless – like a ventriloquist’s doll.

While it is easy to say, caring for an ageing parent should be a collaborative not a divisive exercise. Where it is difficult, strained, or made impossible, it can be hard to find a way to retrieve the situation.

A number of solutions come to mind including:

  • Agreeing on protocols between the children; or
  • Family mediation.

Where any of these are spurned, or where the relationships are too poisonous, there may be no other option but the legal system in which, regrettably, we are so often involved but which can often provide some recourse, if not repair.

As a final suggestion, it is paramount that, where the ‘outside’ children start to observe the tell-tale signs of isolation of their parent, advice is sought promptly. Delay will only encourage and ensconce the conduct and make it harder (and more expensive) to resolve or unravel.

Properly caring for your parent may mean doing what is necessary to ensure someone else is properly caring for them.

Brian Herd

Recognised as one of the leading experts in Australia on elder law, aged care, retirement, estate planning and disability and a regular author, broadcaster and popular presenter on many elder law subjects and issues.