January 14, 2023

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The Family Caregiver Wolves Are Circling Our House

Crow’s Feet
Orrin Onken
AI Image. Prompt by Orrin Onken

When I was in gerontology school, they taught that when a family needs someone to do elder care, the oldest daughter gets the job. This is true around the planet. It is a human thing, not a cultural one. Of course, in some families, there is no daughter, or the oldest is unavailable because she is in prison, living in Peru, or working undercover for the CIA. In those cases, someone else steps in. But where there is an oldest daughter available, the oldest daughter does it.

My wife and I are old and getting older. We need more support every year. I’m good with our elder daughter being in charge. We have a younger daughter who thinks she should be in charge because she has college degrees and a career in social work. She doesn’t understand yet that in families, resumes don’t matter. Our younger daughter can have all the expertise she wants, but to us she is still the one who ate her own boogers until she was thirteen.

And we suspect she is still doing it.

The family meets without us to talk about what they should do. I told them about the older daughter thing. After all, I have done graduate work in gerontology, and I practiced elder-law for twenty years. But that stuff doesn’t impress them. The rule about resumes not mattering in families includes mine. They think the knowledge I have is old, worn-out, and past-its-pull-date. They have fresh new knowledge.

There won’t be much for our oldest daughter to do. My wife and I live in a reasonably safe house, but when the house becomes too much for us, we will turn it into cash, a lot of cash, and trundle on down the road to assisted living. Once in assisted living, the hands-on work of doing the cooking, cleaning, and the other stuff we no longer want to do will be done by people who have been trained how to do it and are getting a fair day’s wages for their efforts.

When I practiced law, I often gave the speech. The speech was where I told family members that love was no long-term substitute for training, pay, days off, proper equipment, and a safe elder-care setting. Family members could provide care for a while, but they had to be prepared for the day when love would be insufficient, and, on that day, if they did not hand the work over to professionals, the declining elder would take the caregiver down too.

So all my oldest daughter has to do is visit often enough to keep an eye on the institutional care-givers and make sure we are getting what we pay for.

Seems simple.

But the family has other ideas.

My extended family, like most families, has a couple of members who never made peace with the rough-and-tumble of American economic life. They never found a societal niche, and over the years the family has spent many an hour anguishing about how to help them. In my law practice, I saw a lot of families like this. Embarrassingly enough, the failure-to-thrive family members were most often men. Sometimes they were alcoholics or drug addicts. More commonly, they were just eccentric.

In my family, it’s Ed.

And to a certain extent, Henry.

And although it looked like she was pulling it all together for a while, maybe Karen.

So the family sees opportunity. My wife and I have a big house with plenty of room. It is worth a lot and could really pump up the inheritances were we to die still owning it. So let’s designate the least capable person in the family to be a care provider. He can live in mom and dad’s spare room, thus solving his housing problem, and care for our parents, thus solving the elder-care problem. The icing on the cake is that the house stays in the family. The plan is a trifecta: (1) it provides care for the parents, (2) it protects the kids’ inheritance, and (3) it gives Ed, or Henry, or maybe Karen somewhere to live.

And like those three-in-one printer-fax-copiers they sold a couple of decades ago, it does everything badly.

When I was practicing law, unraveling the consequences of this sort of family thinking paid for my Tesla.

The first problem is the most important one for me. Putting the least capable person in the family in charge of elder care on the theory that it doesn’t require any actual skill or talent, guarantees the elder, in this case me, will get the most incompetent care imaginable. Second, if you give Ed, or Henry or maybe Karen, free housing for a few years, he or she will not give it up willingly just because my wife and I die or are no longer safe in the home. And finally, rather than protecting the kids’ inheritance, it sets the stage for probate litigation that will eat up the estate and leave the family forever divided.

From my days in the probate courts, here’s how it works.

  • Ed moves in with us and migrates to the basement to work on his full-color tabletop reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge
  • Shortly thereafter, my wife and I begin caring for Ed, who has never cooked or cleaned for himself or anybody else in his life, and isn’t about to start now.
  • Ed provides transportation to doctors, but as the trips become increasingly frequent — much to Ed’s annoyance — he sees the writing on the wall that we are not long for this world.
  • Ed decides he has given up everything valuable in life to care for us and claims that he is therefore more deserving of an inheritance than his siblings, who are all working and, according to him, don’t care enough to even visit.
  • Ed tells us that if we are good people and believe in fairness, we will deed the house to him, or change the will to favor him, and if we disagree its shows we are so ungrateful for all he does that he doesn’t see how he can continue to drive us to all those doctor appointments.
  • Ed gets some documents he downloaded from the internet and says that we have to sign them so the government won’t take all our money when we die.
  • Caring for Ed gets harder and harder. The neighbors call Adult Protective Services and the authorities remove us to a long-term care facility. Ed stays in the house, stalking the neighbor who turned him in.
  • Ed comes to us complaining that the long-term care facility is using all our Social Security money on our care and he can’t pay for the utilities at the house.
  • Our house has to be sold to pay our care costs. The conservator appointed to accomplish this learns that there is a deed transferring the house to Ed. The conservator goes to court to invalidate the deed and Ed represents himself claiming he is not subject to the jurisdiction of the court because the State of Oregon, where we live, was improperly admitted to the union and therefore does not exist.
  • The police have to remove Ed from the home. He becomes homeless and spends his days going to the courtroom where he lost his case to glare at the judge.
  • We die.
  • The will that Ed downloaded from the internet left everything to him. Whatever is left in our estate goes to a lawyer for the legal work to void that will.
  • Everybody in the family develops such powerful feelings about who is to blame for all this that they refuse to speak to each other for two decades.

So neither Ed nor anybody else will be moving into our house. We will dump it and our eldest daughter will get the job of visiting us at the assisted living facility, listening to us complain about our ailments, and nodding when we tell her once again that funny story we’ve told her a thousand times. The other family members can drop to visit too, but the physical labor will be done by people who know what they are doing and who are legally prohibited from asking us for money.

As to the family, they can have as many conferences as they want where they encourage each other to think outside the box. It is nice that they think of us at all. But when they are done, they need to put their thoughts back in the box, keep Ed out of our house, and do it the way it is supposed to be done.

That means the oldest daughter.