Remember the story of Pete and Alice, some 45 columns ago?
It started off with:
“Here’s a true story (names changed) from my experience. If it doesn’t apply to you, or I can applaud you for wisely already having fixed the problem that it exposes, please stay with me anyway, because you could be a huge help to someone who still needs to fix theirs:
Pete and Alice have been an ideal harmonious couple, admired for seven decades, Alice the perfect homemaker and Pete the consummate family business manager. Alice thrives on her freedom from the ‘messy and mysterious’ mechanical and financial chores of life’s business, and Pete revels in prideful self esteem for protecting her from them, finessing them so well himself. He’s her hero.”
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The story was aimed at the many aged pre-war (World War II, that is) couples who were still around, but approaching life’s end. Since then, they’re about gone, but baby boomers now have reached late life, Gen-X’ers are on their way to it, and millenniums will follow.
Each generation has its own ideas of spousal roles in our ever-changing culture. But I think the story’s message is so vitally compelling for everyone that it’s well to feature it again, updated to fit today’s scene. Let’s even give the couple contemporary names, say “Jeff” and “Jessica”:
Terminal cancer is extinguishing Jeff’s life, and Jessica is awakening to her imminent frightful quandary. Besides losing Jeff’s loving and protective companionship, being a world-class parent and skilled career worker, she’s unequipped to manage the ordinary daily nuts and bolts business side of the couplehood.
We’re talking about life’s daily business, big things and little things. Some examples:
▪ Reconciling the checkbook register.
▪ Dealing and negotiating with services providers and vendors.
▪ Skirmishing with the auto repair, HVAC, or carpeting shop.
▪ Unjamming the garbage disposal.
▪ Mastering the attorney’s advice and the resulting documents.
▪ Choosing, strategizing, negotiating, and financing investments.
▪ Buying the right insurance and pursuing claims.
▪ Finding computer files that have disappeared into “the cloud”.
▪ Understanding the car’s “language” and ordering maintenance.
▪ Selling, leasing or buying the home, and relating to the realtor.
▪ Pursuing grievances against contractors.
▪ Prepping, filing, and understanding tax returns.
▪ Penetrating the mysteries of mastering the new smartphone.
By pampering and protecting her, Jeff unintentionally has undermined her. Sure, she’s loved it, but the price to pay will be grievous. It has deprived her of the ability to function with the dignity, self-reliance, and independence that she needs and deserves. Now, in painful necessity, she’ll have to sacrifice her lifelong hope of never having to seek assistance from the children or anyone else. She’ll have to burden them to shepherd her through the tasks of life’s business and challenges.
At the very least, already grieving over the loss of her hero, she’ll face humbling and frustrating long, aggravating, error-filled experiences in trying to learn to master those chores.
If you’re one of those benevolent “in-charge” guys or gals who think you’re doing your Jessica or Jeff a favor and sheltering or excluding him or her, please understand that you are in fact setting him or her up for travail and heartache. That inevitably will happen, no matter whether the Jeff or the Jessica is the protector, and regardless of which is the protectee.
Most couples divide the chores and management functions between the partners. You, too? Each partner does what he or she likes best to do, or is better at, and only certain functions are partnered or shared. Seems to make sense, yes? The problem happens when one your loved one for whatever reason doesn’t keep the other informed, or the other just isn’t interested and doesn’t want to know.
Yes, we think we’re pretty sharp about how well we steward our financial and property affairs. Indeed, we probably are. But let’s be sure to keep our your loved ones “in our loop”, and to be seriously proactive about being kept in theirs. And, incidentally, if we already are, but we look more closely, we well might learn how much better we can do — or even how well your loved one could master a function — maybe even better than we do it. Surprise!
Like to make the problem worse? Just ignore it. Denial and its co-conspirator, procrastination, are such convenient cop-outs!
So, how to bring your loved one up to self-reliance level, even if your loved one doesn’t want to go there? Here’s our chance to be even bigger heros or heroines than we already are. Unless your loved one already suffers incapacity and truly can’t handle it, it’s a matter of motivation, isn’t it? your loved one’s objections come from mind-sets like “not-want-to” vs “want- to”, “can’t-do” vs. “can -do”, “apprehension vs. confidence”, “denial vs. reality”, procrastination vs. urgency”.
You’re already realizing that motivating your loved one requires your respect, patience, gentle guidance, and understanding, aren’t you?
And that the time to get going is today, if not yesterday, because although you are a fantastic person, there’s no guarantee of life or lucidity tomorrow.
You might start with a “heart-to-heart” hand-holding conversation, your loved one likely already knows what you’re talking about, and already is concerned about the situation. If, for whatever reason, it’s difficult to relate to each other on this level, maybe a respected friend or relative can help.
If your loved one can see and feel the stark misery of a dear one who now is suffering a Jessica life, that perhaps would be a harsh approach, but a successful eye-opener and motivator.
All of that might motivate your loved one, but it surely is negative and unpleasant, isn’t it. Let’s instead do something that’s positive, comfortable, and even pleasant, a desirable togetherness activity.
Both of you really are quite capable, and have good ideas to contribute:
How about joining together in a happy “git-’er-done” project, such as creating the core working guide, the marvelous chaos-dissolving “Estate Operators Manual?” That’s the loose-leaf single-source binder, thumb disc, or folder that chronicles all the information that your personal responders or fiduciaries will need when you’re suddenly demented or dead, and they have to take over everything for you immediately and under emergency and stressed conditions.
I’ve noted how this “Mayday and Doomsday File” project generates desirable happenings, such as partners-together introspection, thorough thinking, smart decision-making and hands-on managing.
Now, though, let’s be realistic. What if the efforts don’t succeed, and your loved one indeed will need heavy-duty help? Hence, “Plan B”:
Then, it’s time to prepare the other family members, and whoever else will be needed to become your surrogates, and should be informed, positive, willing, available, and compassionate.
Logically, they might well be those who will perform roles in the estate plan that you’re building or updating. Keep them posted periodically with insights, briefings, and awareness of the “manual.”
Let’s also note that if your world of living is complex or intricate enough to suggest professional and specialized skills, everyone is best served by engaging professional firms, despite the cost. But, as with individual family members and friends serving in “helper” roles, have them selected, contracted, briefed, and periodically re-briefed, and for the same reasons.
Now, all of this is how REALLY to be your loved one’s – and the family’s -- hero or heroine, isn’t it? Sooner or later, our marvelous partners in life, whom we take such good care of and who likely will be our survivors gratefully will welcome their new independent self-reliance. And surely they’ll admire us and thank us for our wisdom and our magnificence. So might everyone else.
Contact Gary Newman at email@example.com. Your ideas and comments are always welcome.