There’s a good reason why I keep a full box of tissue in my office. Guilt over promises made creates more tears than anything else I come across in my daily work life.
“We’ve been married for 55 years and I’ve been taking care of him for the last five years. I’m not even sure why I’m here except my daughter told me I needed to check some places out. I told her that I promised him that he would never have to go into a facility – that I would take care of him.”
After the tears and more than one tissue, we talked. An hour later she still had her doubts, but felt somewhat better. It took numerous conversations with her and her daughter and both of them joining a caregiver support group before she was able to let go of the guilt enough to make the hard decision to move her husband to a community.
The only thing that promises of this type do is create guilt feelings in loved ones. And guilt is counterproductive to your physical, mental and emotional well-being.
While not necessarily legally binding, the promises we make to our family members can bind us in many other ways. Guilt, poor decisions, potentially harmful decisions, and possible harm to family members can all come out of promises made in the heat of a crisis, or even simply made in ignorance of what the promise might entail in the long run. Not making a promise can be difficult and require forethought about the situation. Reworking a promise once it has been made is also an option for handling these dilemmas. On occasion, we may need a way to rework a promise when the person who extracted the promise from us is no longer able to understand us or has died.
But that also can present its own set of problems when it comes to other members in the family. Being human, most of us have made one of those “hard to keep” promises during our lifetime hoping that we would never have to be faced with honoring that promise.
Some common promises that have been made to older relatives are: Promising to “Never put me in a nursing home.” Promising never to sell the family business. Promising never to sell the family home.
Promising to “take care of a handicapped or incapacitated relative.” Promising to continue a family feud, e.g., “Never talk to your cousin Stone or his family because of what he did in 1969, and promise me you will never forgive him or his family.” Promising to not take a specific course of action about a stock, investment, or other monetary issues, e.g., “Never invest my money in banks.”
And the list of potentially damaging promises goes on and on. There are many reasons family members might ask you to make such a promise. They are angry with someone else and do not want the other forgiven. They are worried about what will happen to someone (or some-thing) and somehow feel that their wishes are better than any you may have in the future. They could be afraid of being abandoned emotionally, unloved, or taken advantage of. They might be afraid of being abused or poorly cared for as their own family was in previous days. They don’t trust your ability to make the best decisions for them: Even if they don’t admit this, the “promise” has this lack of trust embedded in it, otherwise the promise wouldn’t be required. They unconsciously figure that what worked for them, e.g., owning a family business, is the best for you whether you think so or not.
Each of the reasons given above has merit, even the ones that imply that your relatives know better than you do what is best. Although some cases can feel pretty insulting, the older relative is at some level trying to do the best for the family. However, fear and lack of awareness about how circumstances can change make many of these promises unnecessarily painful. Some people have a need to control everyone else and use guilt to manage relationships, which in turn can lead to them displacing their problems on you in the form of a harmful promise.
Promising to “Never put me in a nursing home.” As a result an older adult with incontinence and dementia who also has mobility issues is kept in a private home for two years, which means that someone in the house has to quit a job to take care of the elder family member. Eventually, the family member retires, but because of the loss of job has significantly less money to support his or her own retirement and becomes a burden on his or her own family.
Promising never to sell the family business. Sons and daughters who do not want to go into the family business feel obligated to keep it going, even though it may no longer be profitable and they cannot get any enjoyment or value from the energy and effort the parents put into developing the business. In addition, inheritance and succession for family businesses are very complicated due in part to tax laws.
Most family businesses do not survive through three generations. Promises made may actually quicken the demise of the business because the promise does not take into account the people and legal realities that future generations face.
Promising never to sell the family home. The family house is never sold, is hard to rent, and loses value. The lack of financial resources from not selling the house also could make the difference in the type of care the elder family member is able to receive.
Promising to “take care” of a handicapped or incapacitated relative.” One family member takes on a significant financial burden for 30 years, rather than working earlier with the parents to provide funds that can be used for the family member’s care, or working on alternative living arrangements.
Promising to continue a family feud. Family rifts increase in intensity, members are alienated from each other, don’t speak, are hostile when they are together, and eventually no one knows why.
Promising to not take a specific course of action about a stock or investment. Families may feel guilty about investing, even somewhat conservatively. In some instances, people keep inappropriate investments and actually lose money because “it was their favorite stock.”
So, how can we handle a promise that is now a burden around our necks? The first piece of advice is, “Don’t make the promise they ask for, make a promise you can sensibly keep.” This is much easier to suggest than to do, however. It may take some preparation to be able to reassure your older relatives that their underlying concern(s) will be met, but that circumstances will have to dictate what you will and will not do.
A second approach, if you failed to do the first one, is to revisit the promise and in essence change your unqualified “Yes” to a more specific statement of what you can promise. You will run the risk of the other getting angry, disinheriting you, or calling you names, but the price you would pay in guilt or in negative consequences for years if you didn’t revise your previous “yes” may well be worth this risk. A third approach is to talk for a while with the relative about what is behind the need for the promise, then put on the table some values you both agree on, such as: You would want us to do what is best for the entire family; we want to be sure you get the most out of your resources; we need to be able to make appropriate decisions if things change dramatically.
The fourth aspect of talking about promises requested is to be sure you address the underlying concerns directly. You can promise not to violate these as long as the needs of the loved one and the integrity of the family are upheld without determining a specific course of action.
Take a look at how these strategies can be applied to one of the promises mentioned earlier in this article: Promising to “Never put me in a nursing home.” An alternative approach might be to say, “I can promise you certain things. The first is that I will make sure you have the best care we can afford. The second is that you will never go to any living situation that is not right for you. The third is that we will try to do what is best for the entire family if you are sick or need assistance. I will not allow you to be treated without respect and dignity. We will not, under any circumstance I can think of, abandon you emotionally.”
For more information and resource assistance, e-mail Pam Scott at email@example.com or call 683-7047.
Contributing correspondent Pam Scott is the Community Relations Director for Discovery Memory Care in Sequim.
Choices, decisions – Where to go? What to do
Wed, Apr 10, 2013
One day at a time
Wed, Jan 9, 2013
You mean there’s a test for that?
Tue, Nov 6, 2012
The facts, the goal, the results
Tue, Oct 2, 2012
Eeny Meeny Miney Mo
Wed, Sep 5, 2012
‘You don’t have to whisper’
Wed, Aug 15, 2012
Information tidbits for seniors
Wed, Jun 6, 2012
A few of my favorite things …
Wed, May 2, 2012
Alzheimer’s: The heartbreaking disease
Wed, Apr 11, 2012
Do you know what you need to know?
Wed, Mar 7, 2012
Promises, promises ... how to handle best intentions
Wed, Feb 1, 2012
For seniors, a little bit of this and that
Wed, Nov 2, 2011
What? me scammed? Never!
Tue, Oct 4, 2011
How to speak ‘dementia’ with your loved one
Wed, Sep 7, 2011
Questions, answers, suggestions and Alzheimer’s
Tue, Aug 2, 2011
I need a vacation, but who will care for Mom?
Wed, Jul 6, 2011
Just Imagine: A Future Without Alzheimer’s
Wed, Jun 1, 2011
Letting go of the car keys: Part 2
Wed, May 4, 2011
Letting go of the car keys: Part 1
Wed, Mar 2, 2011
The balancing act of being a family caregiver
Tue, Feb 1, 2011