Have you ever been so deeply immersed in a situation that you couldn’t recognize how bad it was until after the fact? Think about past jobs or relationships that ended. Did you find yourself months or even years later thinking, “How could I have ever imagined that would work out?” “Why didn’t I listen to the people who told me it was toxic?” “How did I not see all the signs?” Many of us associate this “I should have known better” feeling with our teenage or young adult years, but it can just as easily crop up later in life – especially where care of a loved one is involved.
After the fact, it’s easy to look back and see toxic situations for what they are. But from the front end, noticing the signs of “wrongness” is much more challenging, especially in the absence of an acute incident. When things slowly become worse and worse, such as when a loved one’s dementia gradually progresses, we make small adjustments in our thought processes and lifestyle to accommodate those changes, and after a while they feel normal. Many adjustments down the road, our ability to perceive the difference between “normal” and “crazy” may be diminished – or altogether gone.
Sometimes when people first call our office they are already well into a care and/or financial crisis, but they have no idea that they are heading toward the edge of a cliff. They have made so many minute adjustments to cope with difficult changes that they don’t realize their lives are in chaos. A parent’s dementia has advanced to the point that they are exhibiting dangerous behaviors, like wandering or being violent, but the adult child thinks he or she can still provide safe care in the home. A spouse is so dependent for physical needs that their partner cannot leave their side, but the healthy spouse has come to see 24/7 caregiving as a normal aspect of their relationship. The family has become skilled at stretching dollars and chipping in for a loved one’s care, but they have no plan for how to cope when limited funds run out in a few short months.
Recognizing a toxic situation early can have huge financial and care benefits for the elder and for family caregivers. Sometimes it’s necessary for an outsider – an out-of-town family member, a friend, or a financial or care professional – to provide a reality check. For those just taking on a caregiving role, cultivating self-awareness or inviting outside advice from the beginning can also be a tremendous help. The caregiver should make a point to step back from the situation regularly and get into a mental space where he or she can really take stock. Going on a weekend getaway or journaling about changing dynamics may facilitate the necessary moments of clarity to detect when things are going wrong. But seeing it clearly from the inside may not be possible, especially for caregivers whose time and energy are already stretched thin.
As a Life Care Planning law firm, part of our job is helping families to recognize and address the toxicity or chaos in their lives. Often people call us for help with a single issue that is only a small part of a much bigger set of problems. They may not be aware that they are about to make some major mistakes or that there is help available for the multifaceted problems they are facing. We answer the questions they didn’t know they needed to ask, and we create a comprehensive plan that addresses a wide range of legal, financial, and care issues for the whole family. This approach helps everyone transition from a constant state of chaos back to something much more healthy and sustainable. Once stability is restored, the elder gets better care and the caregivers have more time and energy to take care of their own needs: a win-win for the whole family.