Allison Keating answers your queries about life & relationships
Question: My father left my mother for a younger woman when my siblings and I were in our late teens. We are now middle-aged and my father is quite elderly. His partner is about 10 years older than us. He has recently developed dementia and she doesn’t want to look after him and has told us she wants to arrange for him to go into a home. He is perfectly capable of living at home with help but as she lives with him, she is refusing that option.
We are due to sit down and discuss this soon and I would like some help in terms of how to approach this. None of us like this woman and there is a lot of anger on our side. My mother is still technically his wife so my siblings want us to go the legal route. I just want to make sure we have a rational discussion without letting emotion take over. Have you any advice?
Allison replies: In terms of advice, that is a good idea to get the correct legal information. I have left some resource links at the bottom that could be useful in making an informed choice that could guide the meeting.
My advice will centre on helping direct you to soothe and meet your emotions — to explore your hopes, fears and concerns for your dad’s future care and what that will mean for you all.
That sounded like a deeply upsetting and unsettling time for you and your family’s life when your dad left. It can be healing and healthy to process what may still be a raw emotional wound.
Let’s invite the emotions present in. I know people think there are positive and negative emotions but that isn’t technically correct. Emotions serve specific functions and relay messages in the form of the range of emotion from anger to sadness with the intent of being information cues.
If we see ‘anger’ as ‘negative’ it is an easy one to repress and actively suppress. If we look at anger from a functional perspective, it can give the space and permission needed to process what that time was like for you and how the anger is still seeking to be acknowledged and heard as new experiences unfold such as this.
Where most of us get stuck is we hold beliefs about which emotions are acceptable and which are unacceptable. This conditioning happens openly and implicitly but the one many stumble upon is anger, and culturally women struggle with this one more.
How do you feel about your dad leaving your mum and your siblings? If it feels OK, can you gently connect back to that time. How was it for you? I noticed you said he left your mother, but it would have impacted you all.
Stupid question, but how was it for your mum and then ask how was it for you and your siblings? Often with zero intention to hurt anyone when a family crisis occurs, roles and dynamics can shift abruptly all the worse when it wasn’t something anyone wanted.
Naturally your mother would have been grieving and going through her experience, as adolescents were possibly enmeshed in your mum’s experience. Your needs could have been unexpressed as you may not have wanted to add to any more distress.
I could be completely wrong about this but regardless, I’d like you to ask how you are and how it was for you. Can you write this out for yourself, and you can then ask your siblings to do the same? What does your mum think about the situation now?
It sounds raw and like there is a lot of pain and hurt that needs to be addressed and processed. As I mentioned, the function of anger is to alert you to know when you feel something wrong or unfair has happened. It provides you with a lot of information cues and even though this is quite physically uncomfortable, the trick is to sit with this and tolerate the discomfort because the anger will keep trying to get the message across until you listen.
This doesn’t mean the anger will magically disappear as life will continue to hurtle new hurdles your way, specifically in the form of how to manage your dad’s dementia care going forward. I get a sense that you know this and are afraid that you may say things in the heat of the moment.
‘The whole family is not your responsibility coming at this, and sharing and supporting together will help ease any uneven strain.’
Have you had any practical or medical advice on what to expect to make an informed choice?
There are many layers of emotion present. Anger is a secondary emotion, so see it as the visible top of a volcano but the real emotions are underneath and there may be feelings of hurt, disappointment, sadness, loss and or pain to name but a few. On paper, ask and answer the following questions:
1. What are your dad’s wishes?
2. What is your hope or outcome goal for the meeting?
3. What are your worries, concerns and or fears?
4. If you face gridlock in the discussion, what advice or help can you avail of?
5. Who can support you as a family?
Ask each person to think before the meeting what their goal for the meeting is and why. Is there medical advice of a possible timeline you could avail of in terms of the best healthcare required for your dad’s case?
Acknowledging past pain and processing it can only be helpful as you figure out how best to support yourself, your dad, and your family. The whole family is not your responsibility coming at this, and sharing and supporting together will help ease any uneven strain.
Give people permission to stay in a difficult conversation by saying ‘this is a very hard conversation to have and an important one, if you feel upset or frustrated, we can take a moment to cool down. We are here today to find a way on what is going to be a difficult transition for us all so let’s be flexible and kind with each other.’
For more support, see dementia.ie and understandtogether.ie. Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query you would like addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org