Family conversations about money are often difficult to have. Our relationship with money has deep ties to personal values, which may vary in a family. Many fear that broaching the topic may activate old family wounds and threaten family relationships. When there is sufficient cash flow to everyone’s satisfaction, many dormant relational issues are more likely to remain there. However, when there is a concern about resources, savings or cash flow, the money factor can intensify any family discord.
Not surprisingly, the 2010 Stress In America Survey conducted by the American Psychological Association www.stressinamerica.org found that money is the most commonly cited cause of stress for all generations (76% of those surveyed). While it may be currently quite obvious, this concern rated similarly before the 2008 economic downturn.
As families grapple with the care and needs of an aging relative, additional factors may come into play that add to the reluctance to talk about money. There may be a parent who is resistant to change, a belief that talking about money subverts the elder’s authority, a fear that since the aging process rarely involves just one issue, a conversation about finances will indicate a need for other decisions, a family’s inability to adjust to a role reversal between parent and child, or simply believing that it is easier to ignore the circumstances than addressing it.
Based on my informal survey of bankers, the following illustrates a common scenario of a family struggling to shift financial control without a framework for effective communication.
Myrna aged 82, lives alone, no longer drives but remains active. She has a daughter, Jane, who lives relatively nearby. Jane has recently been added as a joint account holder to the mother’s checking/savings account after some convincing by all of Myrna’s children. The children thought that this change was needed to ensure appropriate oversight of Myrna’s finances and were motivated by their concern about their mother’s recent memory lapses. Myrna was deeply offended by the intrusion and saw it as the second step that her children took to limit her independence and lifestyle choice (the first being taking away the car). Myrna, who used taxis frequently, liked to make sure that she had adequate cash, and would carry on her person a rolled up wad of $50s and $20s. Sometimes she would decide to withdraw additional money even though she had significant cash on hand. While at the bank she regularly chatted with the tellers and her personal banker, which Jane knew.
Like clockwork, Jane would call the banker after each withdrawal and ask if the banker knew why. The banker felt uncomfortable with the inquiry, as it was not her place to ask an account holder the purpose of a withdrawal. When the banker asked Jane why she did not ask her mother directly, Jane replied that she would never talk to her mom about how she spent her money. Similarly, Myrna had directed the banker not to discuss with her daughter anything related to her banking activity.
Elder mediation provides the opportunity for families, like Myrna’s, to discuss difficult decisions with the help of a neutral facilitator. It is not uncommon for families to deal with the inherent tension between dependence and independence in many areas of an elder’s life. While money is often a flashpoint, for Myrna’s family, this may have begun with concerns about her driving. Myrna’s choices as to how to govern her financial affairs may never have been consistent with her children’s ideas. Jane is caught between respecting her mother’s independence, which may include what she believes are poor decisions, and feeling responsible for her mother. She may also have responsibility to her other siblings to ensure that adequate funds are budgeted for Myrna’s long term well being so as not to put a strain on the family finances. As adult children and their parents’ age children must often balance their own retirement plans and the care of their aging parents.
Similarly, it is not uncommon that family members have entrenched relationships and communication styles, which cause conversations on certain topics to be uncomfortable. Acknowledging the challenge, mediation provides a safe space to work through them. By focusing on consensus building, mediation can help family members articulate their current needs and collaborate to solve family problems rather than impose solutions.