The Case Of The Stubborn Stepmom And Control Over An Aging Parent

Some families are products of second, and sometimes third marriages, and with aging parents in the mix, it can get contentious. Mark and Mara, siblings by their Dad’s first marriage, have always been close. They were never particularly connected to his wife, Zena over the years, nor her daughter Roberta. Now, both the aging parents have dementia. Life is getting difficult.

Zena is 90 and quite confused at times. But she thinks she is just fine and can take care of her husband, Ken, by herself. He is frail, over 90, and he cannot walk without help. She stubbornly refused to allow caregivers to come into their home for months. Roberta backs up Zena’s stubbornness and also resists the help Ken needs. It’s two against two—Zena and Roberta against Mark and Mara— with great difficulty getting caregiving for Ken. Mark and Mara at first tried to persuade Zena with logic: “Look, he can’t do these things for himself, please let us get some help in here.” She kept saying “no” and Roberta backed her up aggressively. Finally, Mark and Mara had to make threats and get very pushy, which does not come naturally to either of them. They just want things to be peaceful.

The Legal Issue

The legal part of this, which is what we address at AgingParents.com, is a question of rights. Ken is no longer able to speak for himself about healthcare decisions. Zena is on paper as having authority for all healthcare decisions over Ken. She would not resign when asked to do so, which would have allowed Mark and Mara to take over and see to his care without interference. So, they let things go for a time, once caregivers were in place. But the conflict kept getting worse. Zena tried to stop Mark and Mara from visiting their father alone.

Mark and Mara had finally had enough. They hired an attorney. She will ask the court to remove Zena from being the agent in charge on Ken’s healthcare directive (aka power of attorney for healthcare). This is a decision they did not make lightly. The same doctor who treats both Ken and Zena, a neurologist, has told Mark and Mara that Zena has dementia. But because it’s a legal question of Zena’s ability to safely make care decisions for Ken, the doctor refused to get involved. She would not sign a letter verifying Zena’s incapacity for safe decisions about Ken’s health. Zena is extremely stubborn and perhaps also unable to understand that Ken needs full time care. She keeps trying to fire the caregivers.

Going to court over family fights is a last resort, but sometimes it becomes necessary to protect a vulnerable elder like Ken. Allowing an incapacitated person like Zena to continue to interfere with essential care is not something his adult children can accept.

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Will they succeed in their battle to remove Zena from power over Ken’s healthcare? The odds favor Mark and Mara. Zena’s stubbornness is likely a part of her dementia. She can’t see or process that her actions put Ken in danger. Dementia is not her fault but it must be addressed because her behavior is getting worse. Courts are required to consider the health and safety of vulnerable persons above “individual rights”. Does Zena have the right, at least on paper, to leave her husband neglected and in physical danger of falls and other risks? At the moment she does. Do her kids have the right to ask a court to remove her from her decision-making role about healthcare? Indeed they do.

The Takeaways

If you are the adult child of an aging parent who is under the control of a spouse, and you see danger to your loved one, take action. Unfortunately, aging parents in their 80s and 90s and beyond often need help but can’t see that reality. Memory loss, “mild cognitive impairment”, and stubborn refusal to accept any assistance all contribute to the inability of some elders to do what their adult children think is reasonable. In families of second marriages oppositional alliances can form between step-children, creating even worse conflicts. This can happen in any family, “blended” or not. Divided loyalties and long standing resentments can surface over what aging parents need and how much it costs for help.

If you see this happening to YOU, consider getting legal advice to sort out your options. Letting things go can allow an unsafe situation for your aging parent to grow ever more dangerous. You would not want to feel guilt and regrets when an avoidable crisis for your aging parent hits. The matter can be one of life and death. Getting advice can at least help you see what rights you have, what rights your aging parent has and what actions are possible for you.

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