When the Old Block Chips


Dodging the Falling Chips

Here you are, nearing your own retirement—or maybe you're already there—and looking forward to those leisure activities—or second or third careers—you've been planning for so many years, maybe decades. Suddenly dementia or toxicity sets in. Not in your mind, yet, but in that of one or both of your parents. Now you have a new set of children to care for when you thought those responsibilities were long behind you. If you don't have children you may lack parenting skills to call on, but that's what you need because, guess what? You and your parents have swapped roles and they are in the rebellious teenager stage.

Caregiving is a thankless and exhausting job for anyone. But when the recipient doesn't cooperate, it can seem impossible. And parents who turn against their children don't cooperate. (That's the first of many euphemisms you'll find in this book.)

Parental rejection stings at any age. When it comes late in life it can be especially devastating. Your first instinct may be to take cover from the onslaught of vitriol chipping off your old block. Then a range of emotions and explanations will spin through your heart and mind. You may try to convince yourself that it's just a stage your parent is going through. People with dementia often exist in a state of denial and so do their loved ones, at first. The parents may deny that their offending behaviors ever happened, and the stunned children may make excuses.

Susan Forward, Ph.D., a therapist and author of several relationship books, says in Toxic Parents that denial is one of humanity's most powerful psychological defenses.

You may believe your parent has lost his mind. Or suspect he is just faking dementia as an excuse to get revenge for the hard time you gave him during your teen years. Or for marrying that totally unsuitable person for your fine family. Or for digging up your parent's award-winning azalea while making mud pies.

Or perhaps your sin was much worse than any of those and your old block chose now to let you know he has never forgiven you. You can go crazy trying to figure out why this is happening and fret your way to chronic illness working on this jigsaw puzzle that's missing several pieces. You're much better off putting your energy where it has a chance of helping you survive your new challenge.

Chances are your old block is afraid, of everything all the time, but mainly of losing control. And you, as a loved one he perceives to have the power to ease along that loss of control, become an enemy. This is especially true of toxics, but can happen with any older adult. Don't you look forward to your turn?

Chipped Blocks and the Law

Keep in mind as you muddle through the frustrating legal maze that the main effort of elder law is to help people remain independent as long as possible. I'm afraid the maze analogy is too accurate. Sometimes we can't find the way out. This book is intended primarily for offspring in the last half of life. Even though you may be considered an elder in legal terms (not to mention how your battered psyche feels), your parent will always be older and more favored by the legal system in elder law matters, unless you splinter first. You may save yourself stress, wasted efforts and money if you understand how the system works, or doesn't work, before entering the spider-infested legal wood pile.

Estranged adult children, when trying to help, are especially vulnerable to misunderstood intentions, or possibly misinterpretations or delusions, on the part of their old blocks. Siblings or other relatives may also suspect your motives and actions. Adult children and their parents both need protecting.

The law's favoring of your old block may seem misplaced to you. After all, you not only love and care about your parent, you are actively involved in the greater world. That makes you smarter and more capable of organizing your parent's life efficiently, economically, logically. Right? You know what's best for your aging progenitor, he doesn't. He's a foolish, doddering old block and you're a wise, not-yet-doddering, less-old chip off that block.

You are probably right. But your parent feels just as strongly that it's his life, he's always been in charge and still should be. And—sit down for this one—he is right, too. Unless his actions may cause physical harm to himself or others, he has a legal right to waste money, to cut out hundreds of coupons he never uses, to treat you like a telemarketer when you call. In fact, he may treat telemarketers better than he treats you. Instead of hanging up or raging, he may give them a credit card number, which takes more time than he spends on your good intentions.

It bears repeating: keeping the elderly independent is the goal of elder law, not easing children's burdens and worries (or feeding their greed which many will suspect drives your interest in your parent’s condition). One day, sooner than you'd like, you may appreciate this goal. Now, however, you may worry that your old block's actions will one day leave him with insufficient funds to cover his basic expenses. Unless he is indescribably wealthy, if he lives long, with or without serious health problems, almost any amount of money can vanish. Predators may take advantage of his isolation from family, and even encourage it. Elders who resist giving control to family members sometimes irrationally give it to outsiders. Attempts to prevent him from making mistakes involve legal action and the expenses may leave you with insufficient funds as well as depleted emotions.

Before pursuing a legal path through your old block's forest of chips, you need to know what rights each of you has, what costs may be involved and how likely you are to win your case in order to make a decision that will preserve your own financial and mental health. Of course, you may not be the one to initiate legal action. Your vengeful or misguided parent may sic attorneys on you. Whether you initiate legal action or it's forced on you, some knowledge of the elder law system will help you cope with the inevitable trauma. Real understanding may be too much to expect.

Hopefully your study of elder issues will reveal alternatives to expensive and divisive trips to court. If you still harbor hope of reconciling, initiating legal action against your parent probably will smash that possibility to smithereens, or something smaller. It also can turn you into an impoverished version of your parent faster than you thought possible. Even when you win the case, you may end up losing emotionally. Unfortunately, protecting yourself and your elder sometimes does lead to court, but there's more to elder law than litigation.

Ambushing the Rage

Odds favor the presence of a difficult elder in your future. A study on elder abuse by Orange County (CA) Adult Protective Services found that 34 percent of abuse cases fell in the Self Health and Safety category. That means a person "actively resists needed help but isn't enough of a danger to himself or herself to be committed." The figures include dependent adults from 18-24 years of age, but people over 65 comprised 71% of those canvassed. And remember the unconfirmed statistic that suggests one fourth of families have a toxic? Toxicity is contagious to some personality types. A family with one will likely have more one day. You might become one yourself. (See Appendix B).

The longer we live the greater the chance that physical and/or mental maladies will afflict us and personality deficits will burst through the retaining wall we built in our youth. Average life expectancy in America has increased by more than two years since 1990. Yikes! It now is roughly 80 for women and 75 for men. I've mentioned it before and you'll read it again, the fastest growing age group is 85 plus, well into the range of toxic agers.

Most of the parent's of adult children I have encountered with estranged or difficult relationships ruling the kids' lives, are in their 80s and 90s. The anguished children are mostly over 60 themselves, and many believe, even hope, their end will come before their old blocks'. Could it be that producing nasty elders is nature's way of population control? With all the stress we, the aging caregivers, deal with, our life expectancy may be lower than that of our crotchety parents. And our own “golden” years seem elusive.

You are not necessarily doomed to either silence or rage from your difficult old block, however. You may be able to prevent, or at least lessen, the torment headed your way. And if you have another parent, or relative, or coworker, who hasn't splintered yet but shows promise of doing so one day, this chapter may help you.

Whether your loved one turned on you because of dementia, or because of toxicity, chances are there were signs that warned you of what was coming long before the rift (euphemism time again). Both conditions tend to take their victims through a long period of minor tectonic slips before erupting. Toxics may feel like erupting sooner than they do, but they learn to hide their tendencies until they reach a certain age. For your old block the certain age appears to be now. While toxicity can exist without dementia, dementia may trigger overt toxic behavior.

We know that the older people get, the greater the incidence of difficult behavior. Here's a refresher on the reasons why. If dementia is the cause, it comes from a medical malfunction of some sort, one of those conditions that seldom manifests until old age. It can develop slowly, and in early stages the victim (that's not you, yet,) may realize he's losing it and find ways to cover up. Many adult children marvel at how adept their old blocks are at fooling outsiders.

If toxic personality is the cause, it has always been present but the old block has kept it under control. One theory is that toxics are clever enough, and we know how clever they can be, to realize they will not get their way with bosses, friends, dates, relatives and others, if they show their true feelings toward people. So they stifle their asocial tendencies as long as they must live in society. This personality seems to hate people, even though it can be quite charming. Charm is one of the main manipulation tools toxics use to survive. My old block deserves an award for Lifetime Deceivement. Once they get beyond feeling the need for society, toxics let the chips fly.

Keeping Your Own block from Chipping

As if there isn't enough to worry about, estranged adult children dread turning into their parents in older age. Is late-life estrangement a transgenerational bequeath passed on like a family heirloom? After dealing with the emotional abuse inflicted by a toxic or difficult parent, most victims hope they will not treat their own children the way they are being treated. A common refrain at every workshop and support group for children of toxic and difficult parents is, "I don't want to put my children through what I'm going through." It's almost as common as the caregivers' mantra, "You can't take care of anyone else if you don't take care of yourself."

As victims of elder child abuse we can't help but wonder if toxicity and/or dementia are hereditary and inevitable for us, or if we might be able to prevent our personal blocks from becoming kindling that will ignite a bonfire engulfing our children.

The concept of toxic aging is so uncharted, and a definite diagnosis so hard to confirm, I don't believe we can know for sure if our parent's hurtful behavior stems from a genetic trait, a psychological reaction to unpleasant environmental circumstances, one of the many medical causes of dementia, or some more obscure evil.

I suspect a combination of factors results in oldblockitis. But adult children whose lives are disrupted by late-life parental rejection have reason to worry about their own future behavior. Research seems to favor the idea that whether or not toxic tendencies are passed on through genes, they are likely to be passed on through exposure. Susan Forward compares toxicity to a multi-car pileup "causing damage to generation, after generation," and Lillian Glass calls it "circular contagion," the toxic's bad mood putting others in a bad mood strengthening the original bad mood, spinning a toxic top into perpetual motion.

Psychologists who have studied the phenomenon of toxic aging, few though they are, suggest that this personality or character disorder develops early in life and is present but concealed or muted by the host (a kinder way of saying poison-pill carrier) until his functioning ability, independence and control decline in later years, usually after age 75. That means adult children who are surprised by our parent's "sudden" rejection have actually been exposed to the negative traits all our lives without realizing it. That also means some of those traits may have rubbed off on us.

Some children do recognize toxic behavior and tend to leave home early and stay away. Did someone in your family do that?

The good news is—and if you get nothing else out of this book this item is worth your investment—toxic aging expert Gloria Davenport believes that early recognition and a concerted effort can delay or prevent us from passing on the destruction of family relationships through our own toxicity. We have to do some honest self-analysis and be willing to face the truth, though, and that may be hard, especially for certified toxics who are unwilling or unable to be honest. But if we want to spare our children, and others we want to remain or get close to, it's a necessary effort. If you suspect you are a depository of toxic traits, attack them now, while you are able to face reality.

Will you become your old block a few years from now? The first step toward finding the answer is to determine whether or not you show toxic tendencies. The condition may be even more difficult to diagnose in ourselves than in others. The following steps should help you discover if you and your children are vulnerable.

End of excerpts

© 2007 Carol Celeste
All rights reserved.