L.A. at Home

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Category: It's All Relative

Parents' finances: When the family secret is Mom's bank balance

Conversations we loathe: Telling a spouse that it's over. Explaining sex to our kids. Asking our elderly parents about their finances. How do you broach that last subject without sounding greedy? It's an important conversation to initiate, experts say.

“It's not a question of age,” elder law attorney Danielle B. Mayoras says. “Whether you're 30, 50 or 90, no one is promised tomorrow. It's important to have these conversations sooner rather than later.”

Relative financesEarly in the year is a good time to start fresh, Mayoras says. She is well-versed in the subject: She co-wrote an estate planning guide, “Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Hunts,” with husband Andrew Mayoras, a probate lawyer. The book uses well-publicized courtroom battles to illustrate the bitter clashes that often follow the death of a parent.

You can avoid such wrenching problems by persuading your parents to plan ahead, she says. And there's no better time to start than the present.

You never know what you might find when you start asking questions. I found that my parents had more than $120,000 — a huge chunk of their savings — stashed away in a checking account drawing no interest. I talked them into visiting a financial counselor with me, and eventually my father moved the money into low-risk investments. It marked the beginning of a long-range plan that eventually kept their estate out of probate court.

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Her gift to her 90-year-old dad: a trip to the strip club

Strip Forty Deuce Hollywood
I confess. I took my 90-year-old dad to a strip joint as a present. It wasn’t my idea; I have a crazy friend who dreams up stuff like this. But it turned out to be one of the silliest and most memorable things I've ever done. Though people may cringe at the very thought of a strip club, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend the outing for everyone, there’s something to be said about the benefits of laughter and about celebrating holidays and birthdays with gusto, regardless of age. Creating memories is wonderful, even if some of the people involved end up forgetting the experience by the next day. (That was sort of a joke.)

A friend of mine who loves extreme celebrations hired a high school marching band to parade around her dad's nursing home playing “Happy Birthday” and other sprightly party tunes. She gave out kazoos to residents so they could play along. Her only regret? She forgot to make a video; she thinks it would have been funny enough to go viral.

Another friend organized his family into an acting troupe and performed a vaudeville show at his mom's senior center as a Christmas gift. The audience laughed uproariously — mostly because the group was so bad.

Not everyone can pull off a vaudeville show or afford a marching band. But we all can still plan a special celebration. One woman I know made short video clips of friends telling their favorite things about her dad. She played it at his birthday. It revealed the kind of sentiments that unfortunately aren't usually heard until a funeral. In this case, her dad got to enjoy the words of praise and laugh along at the jokes and stories people told about him.

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Caring for an elderly parent when you're an only child

Only childMy friend Martha danced down the yellow brick road of childhood by herself, happy to be the only child of doting parents. She felt no need for brothers or sisters. But when her dad died and her mother developed Alzheimer’s, Martha suddenly felt alone. She lived 2,000 miles away, had a demanding job and desperately needed someone to share the burden, she told me one day as we compared notes about caring for our parents.

My friend had run head-on into one of the major problems that confront children who have no siblings. One is the loneliest number when faced with being the sole caregiver.

Studies indicate that the responsibility of providing care is one of the major fears of an only child. A 2001 survey found it is consistently perceived as a serious challenge, with respondents also noting feelings of anxiety about being the sole survivor in a family after parents die.

With the recession taking its toll on fertility rates and single-child families increasing in number, the problem is growing in scope. In the United States, and in most industrialized Western European countries, families with one child are the fastest-growing type of household. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, single-child families have almost doubled in number to about 1 in 5 in the U.S.

The stereotype of the lonely only child, selfish, spoiled, maladjusted, has begun to fade, thanks in part to recent studies that show only children are as well-adjusted and in many cases more intelligent than those of us with siblings. But being alone when medical, financial and care-giving decisions must be made for parents can throw anyone off balance.

Los Angeles County resident Cynthia Rawls, 56, moved home four years ago to take care of her mom, Ruby, 90, who was showing signs of dementia.

“Our home was always so neat and tidy,” Rawls said, remembering her childhood. “But then my mother began hoarding. She tried to hide her condition for a long time, but she couldn’t anymore. The last four years she’s been on a slippery slope.”

Rawls never enjoyed being an only child. “I was very lonely,” she said. But that feeling was nothing compared with the isolation she felt when she began to care for her mom. “It was overwhelming,” she said.

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Alzheimer's aggression: When disease triggers angry behavior

Alzheimer's anger and aggression
As I sped along the 10 Freeway toward a rapidly setting sun, an explosive grinding noise erupted to my right. My car swerved wildly, sliding across two lanes toward the center divider. I grappled with the steering wheel trying to regain control and glanced quickly toward my dad, sitting next to me. In the fading light, I could see what had caused the problem: He had grabbed the gearshift and jerked the car into neutral.

“Let go!” I screamed. For a moment, we tussled over the stick, then I pulled it from him, jamming the car back into gear. “You can't do that while I'm driving,” I yelled. I took a deep breath, trying to calm down, and turned on the dome light. “It's me, your daughter Rosemary,” I said quietly.

He looked at me and blinked, suddenly aware of what he had done. “I didn't know it was you,” he said.

My dad, 91, had zoned out. The incident was a result of dementia, a disease that had left him con-
fused and suffering from a dual personality.

Ninety percent of the time, he was the same wonderful man who had taught me how to ride a bike, dance a waltz and drive a car. He was friendly, compassionate, polite, understanding. The other 10% of the time, his behavior was irrational and sometimes aggressive.

Experts say it's unclear why aggressive or violent behavior sometimes develops among people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. My near-accident in the car seems to be a relatively common phenomenon.

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