In my role as Power of Attorney for both of my parents (a role I took on some years ago, with a poignant combination of love, loyalty, rage, resentment, gratitude, and grace), I find myself frequently having frustrating phone encounters with a large and diverse sample of humanity.
When I initially took on this monumental undertaking, I didn’t realize it would be another full-time job. I figured I’d just have their mail forwarded to me, get my name on their bank accounts, and all would be reasonably manageable.
I forgot that my parents are Arnold and Florence Freed.
I should have at least guessed that my Dad’s record-keeping and bill-paying functioning would be severely sub-standard (an under-stated understatement). I can clearly recall him laughingly responding to threats of being dispossessed due to negligent payments: “Let them come seize me! Nobody comes to seize me any more!” And my sister remembers the constant warnings from the electric company that our power would be turned off unless he paid his delinquent balance.
My mother was the responsible one – when she was cognitively clear. She held it all together. When her mental and physical capacities plummeted, so did any semblance of record-keeping, bill-paying, and money management for both of them.
And so I inherited a mess, and diligently took on the challenge of cleaning it up. (See prior chapter for more on this theme)
Seems my Dad had stopped opening his mail at least ten years earlier. There was the little issue of the IRS having emptied out my Mom’s entire bank account due to all the years of not paying taxes correctly, if at all. And that was just the beginning.
There were countless companies to which ongoing payments were being made, for services or products nobody knew about, wanted, or needed.
There was a plethora of unpaid medical, utility, and housing bills with years of late charges.
And this was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Years later, the work continues. Some days, I show up to it more gracefully than others.
In a recent attempt to get my Dad some desperately needed services, I schedule a doctor’s visit so he could get the required medical paperwork completed. I am told at the last minute, by the receptionist who is simply following office policies, that he can not be seen if he does not have his Medicare card. Of course, my Dad has no idea where that particular card might be, if in fact it is anywhere to be found (which is highly unlikely). So I proceed to try and connect with someone who can help me get him a replacement card as quickly as possible. As these things inevitably go, I find myself on hold for 75 minutes, listening to a repeated cycle of music with interruptions every few minutes, advising me that the Social Security office is very busy at this time and that they appreciate my patience.
This insistent message makes me want to scream back at the recorded voice. My patience? Seriously? The only reason I’m staying on the phone is because if I hang up, I’ll have to start this obnoxious freaking process all over again. They could appreciate many things such as my time, my energy, my devotion to my Dad, my surprisingly stable blood pressure, my slowly subsiding sanity, but my patience – not so much.
Back to the point – After 75 minutes of waiting, I finally get through to a live human being. I explain the situation, and he offers to help. As soon as he realizes I am not the person whose card is lost, however, he informs me that he cannot help. Apparently, Social Security “does not recognize” legal Power of Attorney status, and so he is not allowed to talk with me about my Dad. Wondering if this lack of recognition is an early sign of dementia, which would not bode well for the future of Social Security, I proceed to explain the situation to the man on the phone.
I ask if it would be possible to get my Dad in on a 3-way conference call, so that my Dad can speak directly with him. He agrees, and so I make the first of 5 attempts to get my Dad on the phone, each time tremulously praying to not lose the connection with the still unnamed man for whom I waited 75 minutes. (My lack of sophistication and experience with technology is another subject to which I will likely return. For now, I’ll just say that finding the right button to push that would connect me with my Dad, and then connect me back with the man, was nothing short of a major miracle.)
The thing to realize here is that my Dad is virtually deaf. This is difficult to negotiate because he has been selectively deaf throughout our lives, and has only heard what he was interested in hearing. This generally did not include anything involving or causing mental, emotional, or financial distress; anything that would require him to turn his attention away from the television; anything about ourselves or our lives that did not directly contribute to his pride and pleasure. So, now that he truly cannot hear – even when he is trying to do so – it’s maddening when he seems to be ignoring us as he always has.
Of course, he never hears the phone ringing. Generally, the TV is blasting too loudly to hear anything else at all. And even if he could hear, he can never remember where he left the phone, and it could take hours or days before he finds it again. And he also usually forgets to replace it on the charger, so by the time he actually hears it and picks it up, the connection is likely to go dead after the first minute.
This is why it takes 5 attempts before he somehow hears, finds, and answers the ringing phone. The man with no name is willing to stay on the phone with me each time, allowing me to keep trying until we reach him. (Now his patience – That’s something to be appreciated) When we finally get through, all seems well and readily remedied. My Dad answers the questions correctly. (Here would have been a really good time to say “Perfect” in response to him knowing his place of birth, mailing address, and mother’s maiden name. But of course, he gets no such recognition.) Then we let my Dad go back to the TV, and the man continues talking with me.
This is where the journey twists. I give the man the address of the PO box we use for getting urgent mail to my Dad. Since all of the mail that comes to his home gets forwarded directly to me, I want to be sure that the card gets to him in a timely way. I explain this repeatedly to the man on the phone, who seems to be following. He takes the PO Box address and tells me the card will be sent. Hooray! That wasn’t so bad!
Then the man is silent for a while, and it seems he’s working on finalizing something. I wait for him to tell me we are done.
What he tells me, instead, is that he has just officially changed my Dad’s permanent mailing address with Social Security to the PO Box address. I immediately explain that he just made a mistake, and that I need all of his mail to continue being forwarded to me, which will not happen if it goes to the PO Box.
Suddenly, the generous helpful man morphs into some other person. Having been told he
did something incorrectly, the whole game changes.
He angrily accuses me of encouraging him to make this mistake.
Him: “Why didn’t you stop me?’”
Me: “I had no idea what you were doing.”
Him: “Didn’t you hear me typing?”
Me: “Well, yes, but I did not know what specifically you were typing.”
Him: “You knew I was working on something and that I was typing in the address you had given me.”
Me: “I think there has been some unintended mis-communication here. I’m so sorry about that, but I never intended for you to have all of his future mail sent to the wrong address.”
Him: “Then you should have stopped me.”
In an earlier era, I would have gotten completely thrown by this turn of tone, and would have either collapsed into involuntary tears or exploded in involuntary rage. Grateful for my newly developing capacity for staying centered in the presence of others’ distressing distress, I soften. I breathe. I remember that this is the same man who so kindly waited through 5 attempts at making a connection with my Dad. I remember that this is the same man who worked with me to solve a problem, rather than ending the call as soon as he realized I was not calling about myself. And I imagine this man’s frustration at trying to do a good thing, only to discover that he unintentionally created yet another problem for me.
And in this state of loving compassion toward him, I stay in the conversation, asking what can be done. He tells me he cannot correct the mistake today because the system will not allow him to do so. He promises that he will make a note to change the address in the system the following morning, which I realize is a generous act.
I thank him, and we say good night.
Yes – I could have had a more peaceful night without the whole encounter.
And yes – I got through it.
And yes – I opened my heart and remembered that in some large way, we’re all doing what we think we need to do.
And yes – My Dad will hopefully soon receive his Medicare card, so the doctor will allow him to come in, so he can get paperwork completed, so he can apply for benefits, so he can have some help at home, so someone can come in and clean up a bit, so he will be less likely to fall over all the crap on the floor.
And we’re back to that.