The Protection Racket


It has a clear, maybe not simple, definition for me. It’s the reputation I have with myself. Who I say I am. What I’m proud of. My talents, skills, competencies; the roles I play. My perception of my weaknesses and strengths. How I see beauty and success, and why. What I value, what I believe. And key personal, historical components that have contributed to my thoughts about how the world works, who I am in it, and what’s possible for me. That’s my identity

©pamela hester king
You have one, too, made up of all those things. 

When I work with leaders learning to give feedback, I tell them to be cautious when giving information that contradicts identity. It may be perceived as an identity assault. It's important to give necessary and sometimes negative feedback but equally so to help the recipient maintain their definition of who they are, hang on to their dignity.

Whole wars have been waged, and continue now, over identity. Look at the Middle East if you don’t believe me. 

I won’t give feedback or information that ‘deconstructs’ identity if in my opinion the situation is such that it’s impossible for the person on the receiving end to restore their reputation with self, or build a new one. If they can’t somehow make things right for themselves.

Does that make sense? I have an example.

A long time ago a friend phoned to tell me her mom was terminally ill. My friend had a lot of unfinished business with her mom. She wanted me to guide her in a clear-the-air conversation, and help her say things to her mother that had been left unsaid, or were said but not heard for years preceding.

©pamela hester king

I coach communication so I was a logical choice for help. We were old friends; I knew her mom and had a deep understanding of the issues that troubled my friend. But there was a rub for me. If I helped my friend say what she wanted, I’d likely also undo the accomplishment of which her mom was most proud – she had tried to be a good mother. Believed she had been. Thought she raised her daughter well, with love and advantages, and was leaving to her only child a large estate to secure her daughter’s future and that of her grandsons.

Giving my friend the benefit of the doubt, I’ll say she planned to be compassionate in the conversation. I still said no. Would not do it. Not under the circumstances. There was no time left to work through things. For her mother to refurbish her reputation with herself as having done right by her daughter, let alone time to shift her daughter’s opinion. 

My decision caused a rift. My friend was angry with me. Felt deserted in a time of need. All the things she needed to say before her mother’s passing might never be said. 

I understand her point of view better now. 
©pamela hester king

But that is how I thought, and think today. If there’s no opportunity to restore or rebuild, I won’t be party to sending someone off whose identity has been upended, and may be left to believe they were not who they strived to be through a lifetime so someone else feels better. It serves no one. It has its own fall out for those who remain behind. One burden lessened while another takes its place…

So as my own parents struggled with their illnesses and my brother and I were challenged with maneuvering through a minefield of financial mishaps we hadn’t known existed, we positioned information to my parents to preserve their identities and protect them from ever feeling ‘less than’ in our eyes.

We told most of the truth. That we needed to be judicious, budgets were required, assets were limited and creativity necessary, but we kept to ourselves that at nearly every junction where a decision needed making my parents had chosen poorly with devastating consequences to their future. They never asked certain questions and we didn't feel compelled to tell. 

We protected them with our money. We protected them by doing things that may have been better handled professionally had more resources been available; we protected them by filling in as many blanks as necessary so they were never without, sometimes to our own detriment.

We protected them from gaining the knowledge that they worked a lifetime to wind up insolvent. We could not bear the pain that would be caused for them were they fully in the know, especially my dad whose identity in part consisted of being a good provider.

They had lost the dream of aging and dying in their own home. Were reconciled with great difficulty to the knowledge they would not be leaving much to their children; for them a final picture of meaningful parenting had died. I couldn’t tell the entire, unvarnished truth of their circumstances. Couldn’t handle taking anything else away. Even an illusion.

We managed the facts in small bits, without lying. But without fully truthing either. It was a protection racket.

And then it finally became necessary to ensure their future well-being with the move to Arizona where they would have the benefit of the ALTCS program if needed. I wrote about that a few weeks ago in, Working the System.

Mom called the move her extradition from California. She thought I was too tired to continue caring for them as the primary custodial child. Thought I didn’t love her enough to do the hard stuff anymore. She was disappointed, angry and sad. Afraid to leave what little she had that was familiar.

I highlighted all the reasons why the move was good. Better weather. Close to my brother. A larger apartment with more amenities. Bigger resident population with less dementia so more real peers, companions, and activities. Things which were important to her. As my brother had done when they lived near me, I planned to come monthly to visit. She would have one child near her and the other visiting. The reverse of what we’d done in California.

But the most important piece of information was held back except for the words, “You’ll never have to worry about your financial future.”

Though my brother and I never stopped worrying, I don’t know that they ever did, we'd protected them so well.  
©pamela hester king

My mom fretted. 

told her it was our last great adventure together as a family. We spent part of my 
childhood moving from city to city because of Dad’s work. And here we were again, blazing a trail, learning a new town, making new friends, adapting, just as she'd taught us.

She was not appeased.

I kept wondering whether we’d, I'd, protected Mom too much. In my fervor to help them maintain their identities as sovereign, responsible adults, she had no real context for the move. She was a native born San Franciscan. Californian to the core and was being asked to surrender one more piece of her history. Of herself. The protection bill had come due. My mother would not, could not, did not understand.

If my father understood more than was said I don’t know. He cooperated, even seemed a little excited, until the evening before the move during which he cried out in his sleep, became restless then finally remained awake and disoriented for the rest of the night.
A lifetime of love, Mom & cousin

When Mom said good-bye to her favorite cousin the week before we left for Arizona, they both knew realistically, it was forever. It wasn't easy. There was no protection from that.

The move itself, on December 1, went smoothly. Mom helped unpack and directed furniture placement. She appeared to recover some enthusiasm for her living situation, except for the new laundry routine. She vigorously disapproved of the weekly schedule and told me so on the phone twice daily for a week after I left. When I distracted her with a planned shopping trip upon my next visit and she was nearly restored, temporarily. 

I left her on December 5, my air travel ticket already secured for a return trip immediately after Christmas. She had her Christmas lights and ornaments and my sister-in-law to help decorate their suite. I ordered a wreath for their door.

Mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas. As ever, she didn’t get it. 

“I want you to scout every nook and cranny of this building so that when I come back you can give me a tour, show me everything they have here and introduce me to your new friends. That’s what I want for Christmas.” I hugged her and said, “I love you,” her tiny body lost in my bear hug. She nodded, waited and watched as I walked down the hallway to the exit.

Mom & Brother 
I turned around a few times to see her still standing at her front door. We waved and blew kisses every few feet. I exited.

Ten days later she was in the hospital. Ten more in hospice. Five and she was gone.

Had I protected her right out of life? Broken her heart with what she didn't know? I don’t have the answer. 

Nobody talks about this aspect of elder care. We talk about self-care (I’ll get to that), we talk about social services (I did that in Working the System) but the place where I started, No One Knows How to Do This, well, I know less now than when I began the journey. How to help with adjustments and loss of independence and the different, difficult crises that emerge on the way to the end. 

I don't know that if I'd done everything perfectly it would have made a difference. I can't always tell what's out of my hands. I ask myself some of the same questions even now that there's only Dad to care for. What should I tell him? What should I demand from him in participation because it's good for him and protection only serves to weaken him? I don't know. I say that more often than ever. 

I did the best I knew, as did my brother. We need to protect our own identities, too, from second-guessing ourselves. From not being able to shield our parents completely from the pain of withering away. 

But that never was assigned to us. We took it on. 

We try to protect ourselves from wishing we were more than only human, with mere human power and limits. 


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