Lessons from my 90-year-old mother

Last November I received an urgent call to return “home”. “Home”, in this case, was a place where I had never actually lived, in a country where I hadn’t actually resided for nearly 40 years. Nonetheless, it is where my mother lives and, in a manner of speaking, where one’s mother lives is always “home” in some special way.
After a week in hospital, including a 40° fever that persisted for four days, her memory was completely shot. On top of that, at the youthful age of 90, she had just made the bold move to jettison her live-in companion of 15 years.

In her pre-fever mind, life was too short to put up with a guy (he was 10 years younger) who was simply “too dependent on her, too chauvinistic and too dictatorial about her lifestyle”.

The problem, though, was that it was this same gentleman who had taken over all her financial affairs for the past 15 years. With him gone, and my mom’s memory gone, someone had to sit down and completely reconstruct her financial life to understand, exactly, what should happen now. 

In the four weeks that it took to unravel this incredible mess, I was the one who learnt the most critical lessons. How well does the world of financial advice truly understand what it is that vulnerable segments of the market most need, despite the formidable cost of comprehensive financial care? 

Herewith the education of Anne:

The most painful aspect of ageing is the loss of autonomy – the loss of the right to make decisions about how to complete “the story of your life”. 

In engaging with my mother my first step was to assume (as the professionals did) that her memory loss was age-related and would continue to decline. Incredibly, it was only through a casual conversation with a social worker that we were tipped off about an alternative insight about that memory loss – infection.

Following demands for new tests, a new diagnosis emerged: tick-bite fever, an infection that leads to only temporary memory loss, if it’s properly treated. In less than two weeks, her memory started easing back into action. Chilling how close we had come to consigning her to the irremediably impaired space! 

When I kicked into action, though, it was with the assumption that my role here was to take charge – make those critical decisions based on my understanding of what she would need. Naturally, the minute I tried to browbeat her into following my agenda, she quickly shut down.

What was really required of me was to simply listen – without judgment – so that I clearly understood what it was that she valued most, no matter how seemingly trivial.
Where I had emphasised safety and security, she emphasised quality of life and checking off the items on her bucket list. Where I had emphasised frugality and conservation, she emphasised why giving, no matter how small, was essential to her life values.

Where I had emphasised qualified caretaking, she emphasised the value of friends for support. If we were going to get this right, I had to understand that my answers weren’t necessarily right. 

For the ageing, the newly widowed or divorced, learning to manage their finances under changing circumstances is a painfully slow process – and demands the patience of a saint from those around them. And yet, in the rushed world of financial advice where time is money, is such an exchange likely?

Fail to help an individual build that foundation of trust and insight based on their value systems and any further effort in this regard is probably time wasted. Try to take the car keys away from someone where that foundation has not been built and prepare for a war of attrition. 

So how could I be of value then? I quickly appreciated that if we were going to get anywhere, it would only be through providing her with enough context so that she could arrive at an answer for herself – no matter how much time it might take for her to properly process that information. 

And, the best way to navigate those decision minefields was to frame the critical discussions as trade-offs: If, for example, you absolutely insist that you need to buy a horse at the age of 90 so that you can ride each day with the wind in your hair (yes – this was a specific request), then what would you like to cut back on to fund that expense?

We gave her a life target of 100 and then said, “Here are the non-negotiable costs – now you can work out the balancing items that provide meaning to your days.” Finally she had what she needed: the ability to be the author of her own final chapter.

But this process also awakened me to another reality. As we enter into the new world of thinking around our multi-phase lives, our definition of “assets” needs to change as well.

My mother and I found that a far better way to categorise her assets was to think in terms of:

- Productive assets: The assets you have that could help you continue to generate an income;

- Vitality assets: The assets that will help you to stay healthy and happy (such as that crazy idea of a horse – which turned out to be not so crazy);

- Tangible assets: This is the part involving money, car and home; and

- Transformational assets: The assets that will help you continue to grow in terms of knowledge, relationships and overall stimulation. That would mean her community club membership was another non-negotiable.

Whether we are seasoned financial veterans or novices, we have each formulated our own mental models about money – adviser and client alike. This is the psychological disposition through which all our financial decisions are filtered.

This was the most painful process that I had to go through with my mother. There was absolutely no question of being able to have any coherent financial conversation until we first understood (and confronted) her money demons. What discussions made her shut down, which were no-go areas?

The first barrier was the notion that she needed to defer to a man for validation. That was short-lived once she realised that no “economic man” was likely to give her the permissions she wanted.

But a more burdensome barrier was her distrust of electronic banking and digital transfers. There was no way she would trust what I was setting out unless she saw those double entries into both her cheque book (the US still uses cheques!) and her accounts book.

The most efficient resolution: bite the bullet and do both. If I couldn’t provide her with the ability to see her financial status through a lens that was familiar and interpretable, there was no way the information would be assimilated. For this reason, financial advice can never be a tick-box process.

“Mothers hold back” is so ingrained that getting women to act in their own interest first is an extremely complex challenge, demanding the absolute best in psychosocial wizardry.

My mother derived life meaning from playing this saint-like role of “giver”. But it’s this very ingrained characteristic that made her, and many other women, particularly susceptible to manipulation, to say nothing of a wide range of psychological and occasionally physical abuses.

When I saw the same characteristic manifest itself in me as well, I learnt to name it for what it was: we were enablers. We allowed our partners to continue with their destructive dysfunctional behaviours in the belief that we would save them from themselves. Note: it never happens.

Again, the right answer is not to simply say, “Stop.” The right answer is to help us women understand that helping our significant others/children become fiscally responsible may mean a whole lot of tough love – but it’s also the only answer to our own financial self-preservation.

By the same token, the pains women will take to preserve male egos in the course of financial decision-making are decidedly unhealthy, but horribly entrenched.

A reflexive response to stand aside when confronted with advice from a male poses a serious challenge to anyone trying to act in the best interests of their female client.

Bottom line: the greatest gift we can give women is permission to act in their own interests when this is required.

That leads us to my final lesson: as we approach the end of our lives, it’s never about us alone.

By necessity, as we become less able to take care of our own needs, family or significant others become part of the decision-making equation. The challenge is finding the right balance between getting that necessary support while remaining authors of our own lives.

The most important lesson I learnt over this past year is that getting old is, in fact, a collective affair.

The lesson here is to get those family members or significant others involved in these difficult discussions as early in the process of “winding down” as humanly possible, preferably just before retirement. And continue engaging in those meetings until everyone sees them as a natural part of the life process.

In that first meeting of the collective, set out as best as possible a likely roadmap, including crucial decisions and must-avoid mistakes.

The point is to get everyone thinking about the uncertainties ahead. Who among us will lend the financial support, the emotional support, the physical support – when, and for how long?

When they say, “It takes a village,” know that this is not just a line about child-rearing. Rather, it relates to what it takes for each of us to live a life, and then, to ease out of life. When we can work around these problems as a collective, we increase the probability of maintaining a quality of life for all impacted.

In summary, those four weeks with my mother provided a treasure trove of insights.

This wasn’t just about getting the financial service industry to change the way it engages with women, or the elderly, or the uninformed.

Rather it’s about the industry recognising that there is a much more meaningful service that any number of people are crying out for: that of financial coaching.

How do we get the industry to start seeing that the most vital role they can play is that of the extended hand – not just the extended application form?

What this ultimately means is that the kind of people we need to start attracting into our industry will understand as much about psychological insights and behavioural change as they do about structuring a meaningful budgeting plan for a particularly uncertain phase of one’s life: the end game.

Get this right and we will have created real value as an industry.

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 edition of Collective Insight, which appears in the 19 October edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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