One of the joys I get from lunching with Mom at her retirement community is to hear the latest gossip about the budding romances among the residents, most of whom are well into their 70’s and 80’s.
There have been more than a few marriages that result from these new relationships, most occurring after a fairly brief courtship. As one fellow remarked to me one day, “Son, at our age, it’s dangerous to buy green bananas.”
If you are the adult child of an aging parent who also happens to be single (either divorced or widowed), you may one day be introduced to a “special friend” in their life. Normally, your reaction may be a little patronizing like, “how cute” or “way to go, Dad” but if the relationship becomes more serious or if you are suddenly asked to give your blessing to their marriage, this can be a very troubling event.
In preparation for writing this article, I googled “aging parent wants to get remarried” and most of the search results were forum posts from adult children seeking advice on how to deal with Mom or Dad’s new romance that has gone from sweet to sour because now they want to get married at 80! All sorts of questions run through your mind and you may find yourself experiencing anger, fear, or resentment at the prospect of this person interrupting Mom or Dad’s perfectly lonely existence.
Somewhere in-between the extremes of “I forbid it” and “It’s your life, do what you want” can be found a position of legitimate care for their happiness and concern that they not be hurt by the experience.
In an article titled “How to Deal with an Elderly Parent’s Remarriage – Resolving Issues” author and financial advisor, Michael Lewis, gives some wise advice when talking to your aging parent about their choice to remarry late in life:
*Be Respectful. You are speaking with the one remaining person who brought you into this world and who will always love you.
*Try to Put Yourself in Your Parent’s Position. They are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. They seek your blessing and understanding, so listen carefully and thoughtfully before making your own point or expressing your doubts.
*Avoid Accusations, Recriminations, and Ultimatums. Your parent has already experienced and worked through the guilt often associated with remarriage after the death of the spouse.
*Curb Your Instincts to Attack or Belittle Your Parent’s Choice of a Mate. It is never a good idea to potentially offend your mother or father in such a petty manner.
Of course, there may be legitimate concerns about Mom or Dad’s new relationship. Studies show that as we age our brain’s ability to make sound judgments becomes impaired. This is not necessarily dementia, just biology. Most state laws include an elderly person in a group called “vulnerable adults” because of this biological fact.
Three factors contribute to the vulnerability of an older person: diminished capacity, lack of informed consent, and undue influence. Each of these could be at work in an older person’s romantic relationship and any one of them would give question to the legitimacy of a marriage.
For example, if Mom has diminished capacity – a condition that may have to be proven by a qualified physician – she might not have the legal capacity to enter into a marriage contract. Or suppose she has capacity but was not given enough information to give informed consent when she signed over control of her assets to her new spouse in a durable power of attorney.
Or maybe she did know exactly what she was doing, but signed the power of attorney to her new spouse anyway because he told her if she did not sign it, he would not take care of her in her old age, which would be subjecting her to undue influence.
The best way to prevent any of these vulnerabilities from hurting either party is to have an honest conversation with your parent about your concerns. If you sense this new “special” person has interests other than companionship, then intervention might be required, but hopefully this can be avoided by remaining respectful of each of them and involving neutral parties.
While keeping in mind the points that Michael Lewis makes above, I suggest a meeting with other family members and a neutral mediator. Ask Mom or Dad if they are open to discussing their marriage with a family counselor, clergy member,or attorney. It could be that a more neutral party will come across as less threatening than you and they may be more willing to listen to that person than to you.
Speak openly about your concerns over property and other assets. Even if you have blessed the marriage and no sign of the three areas of vulnerability are evident, they will likely be unaware or unconcerned about property and financial division. Have them meet with an estate attorney or other qualified advisor who can help them understand the complexities of blending two financial households. Once they realize the burden this might place on their surviving children, they will more likely be willing to take the appropriate steps.
I think many adult children assume the proper role of a parent who becomes widowed late in life is to just remain that way for the rest of their life. In doing so, we diminish their dignity by denying them the companionship and affection that they enjoyed for 50 or 60 years as if that need vanishes when their spouse predeceases them.
Instead, I’d like to think that we would adopt the same position as we might with our own adult children: blessing a relationship that makes them happy while protecting them if we can from those that might hurt them. It’s a delicate balancing act on either end of the age spectrum.