emotional cost

The Emotional Cost of Being “It”

Imagine this scenario: You get a call one morning from your elderly mother, who lives independently but can no longer drive. She needs a ride to a medical appointment that afternoon. You respond that your afternoon is tied up with client appointments, so you can’t take her, but you will arrange for an Uber to pick her up.

Your mom needs transportation; you’ve arranged transportation. You can easily afford to pay for the Uber, which is a bargain compared to the cost of rescheduling appointments and taking half the afternoon off work. Your work commitments are not disrupted; your mom gets to her appointment. A win all around, right? Problem solved, right?

Not necessarily. It all depends upon the emotional history and the money scripts of everyone involved, because this is not necessarily a dollars and cents transaction. Your mom might be uncomfortable with the unfamiliar experience of using Uber. She might feel unsafe getting into a car with someone she doesn’t know. Even if she is willing to use Uber, she may feel obligated to pay you back. She may worry about costing you money, not realizing the greater financial cost of your lost work time.

And, even more than that, she might feel offended or minimized because, “I am not important enough for my son or daughter to help me.” There could be a lot of baggage around this, including a money script that, “Personally taking care of elderly parents is something adult children ought to do.”

These are just some of the many possible dynamics that might apply in this situation. There could be guilt, resentment, or frustration on both sides. Your mom might feel a need for an advocate at the doctor’s office but not want to say so. Or her deepest underlying motivation might be wanting the connection of spending time with you.

The dynamics get even stickier in a situation where you are the only available caregiver. One of my acquaintances has become by default the caregiver and money manager for someone who mentally and physically can no longer take care of himself. He is not a relative, but as she told me, “I don’t really want to be the one taking care of him, but he has nobody else. I’m it.”

And just as she—like most of the rest of us—doesn’t want to be “It,” none of want to be in a position where we need someone to be “It” for us. Being “It” is a lot of responsibility, and needing someone to be “It” can be frightening, sad, and depressing.

Ideally, both people in this situation would have the awareness and emotional confidence to communicate clearly. “Here is what I need.” “This is what I can do and how I can do it.” “These are my boundaries.” “These are my limitations.” These are difficult conversations to have. So people typically don’t have them, instead making up stories, feeling angry or hurt or resentful or guilty as they do the best they can.

The ideal solution is to have the means to pay someone to be “It.” There are increasing numbers of agencies that do exactly that. They can provide complete services to seniors that range from companionship to transportation to holding medical and financial powers of attorney. There are also other helpful options: Uber and other services for transportation, housecleaning services, grocery deliveries, meal delivery services, prescription deliveries and automatic dispensers, bookkeeping services, online shopping, and automated online payments.

The issue with all these services is preparation. Financial preparation for retirement and old age, first of all—accumulating the resources to pay for the help one might need. Then the logistical preparation of arranging for necessary services before there is an emergency.

For seniors with limited financial means, some of these services will still be affordable options. It is just going to be much more difficult to either find what you need and can afford or to navigate the social services system. Again, exploring what is available ahead of the time you may need it is crucial. Regardless of the financial circumstances, and whether you are the senior who will need help or the family member who is likely to end up being “It,” another type of preparation is important—emotional preparation. For the senior, that could be doing the internal work that might help you to acknowledge when help is needed and to accept that help with reasonable grace. For the caregiver, it could be the internal work that might be helpful in defining what help you are willing and able to provide. As with so many money-related aspects of our lives, the emotional preparation is likely to be the most difficult and the most important.

Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.

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