Why Planning & Having Legal Guidelines Are Key to Family Harmony

Why Planning Ahead and Having Legal Guidelines Are Key to Family Peace and Harmony

By Paula Erwin-Toth

During the late 60’s and early 70’s, a popular (and undeniably awful pickup line) was, “Hi there beautiful, what’s your sign?” Signs of the Zodiac made a big resurgence during that period, famously labeled (wrongly according to some sources) “The Age of Aquarius.” This was supposed to herald an era filled with world peace and prosperity. There are those who believe our personality is charted in the stars and can guide us in making all kinds of choices, from choosing a career to our lifelong mate.

Life is What Happens While You Are Busy Making Other Plans

Unfortunately, no one has yet been able to master the art of achieving perfect harmony among spouses, children, siblings. and in-laws. Compatibility between a primary family caregiver, other family members, and their loved one is not a given, even if they have all had great relationships for years. When it comes to caregiving, an effort from everyone involved is needed to find that harmony, because no one plans to be sick, disabled, or in need of assistance. John Lennon’s famous quote, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans,” is so true. You do not look at your calendar and say, “Mom, you can have a stroke on May 1 between 3 and 4PM, but you need to be back on your feet by May 5 at 5PM.” Life does not work that way.

Long Standing Rivalries May Come to a Boil

During my career as a registered nurse, I have seen some families pull together and some begin to unravel. Long standing family rivalries and resentments that have been simmering for years may come to a boil. The issues can range from serious to what outsiders may see as ridiculous. For example, there were twin daughters in their late 50’s still arguing about damage to one of the twin’s dolls they had when they were 8 years old. One twin accused the other of switching their Chatty Cathy dolls after breaking her own. This argument persisted through decades until their younger brother sheepishly admitted at their 80-year-old mother’s bedside that he was the one that actually broke the doll. At first there was a stunned silence in the room. Then my patient, their Mom, laughed so hard she cried. As silly as this story may sound, it is not atypical. Both big and little things can pile up over the years before coming to a head when a crisis hits.

Have Legal Guidelines in Place Well Ahead of Time

When it comes to caring for a parent, early planning is essential. Ideally it should be the parent working with family members and a trusted attorney to map out a plan should something happen and they are no longer able to manage their own affairs.  A will, living will, Medical Power of Attorney, and Power of Attorney are just a few of the things that should be in place well ahead of the time they will be required. Transparency in this process is key, even if a sibling lives a long distance away or is somewhat estranged, they need to be included in the process. Significant problems, both legal and interpersonal, can occur if a plan is not established, and might even derail the process to a point of having a judge appoint a non-family legal guardian who, in many states, is accountable to no one.

Still Feeling Like 25 at 86

Starting the legal process can be a very challenging problem to approach, because when do you realize you should start planning? One day my great-uncle Tom, who was like a second grandfather to me, and I were having one of our many memorable chats. He was about 86 years old at the time and said, “When I look in the mirror I wonder, who is that old man looking back at me?! I don’t feel any different inside than I did when I was 25.” Famed photographer Tom Hussey created an award winning photo series called “Reflections,” where older people were portrayed looking at a younger reflected image of themselves. A frail old man saw himself as the handsome young soldier of his youth and an older lady saw the young, vibrant nurse she once was. This is exactly what my uncle was thinking and what everyone who lives into old age likely experiences.

Planning is Part of Looking Out for Your Family

You can probably imagine that when you still feel like 25 on the inside, planning for the day when someone else (even a beloved child) is going to take over your affairs can be a daunting prospect. But planning ahead is part of looking out for your loved ones in the months and years ahead. Having a system in place to ensure your loved one’s wishes are being respected and monitored is key to family peace and harmony.

Remember, it can help smooth the way for all if everyone knows the wishes of their loved one and legal guidelines are established.

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