What rights do I have if I feel my stepfather is mistreating my mom?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother, now 85, was diagnosed with dementia in March of 2008. My stepfather, age 90, has total control of my mother and her finances. He insists on traveling across country from California to Florida, and on other side trips which cause mom to become overly stressed, agitated and confused.

My stepfather is financially secure, but tight and very afraid to spend money for outside care. We want to keep mom with us as long as possible. I am 64 and retired two weeks after Mom became ill. I am in Florida with them now, because he insisted on bringing her here and he treats her like she has no choice in the matter. Her condition is deteriorating rapidly since we arrived two weeks ago.

I have no legal leg to stand on and cannot get him to cancel the remainder of our trip and go home where mom wants to be, near her sons and in her own home. She has regressed to the 1970's and has no short term memory. She has been married to my stepfather for 20 years and only acknowledges that fact maybe 10 percent of the day, otherwise she keeps asking for my father, who died 22 years ago.

What are my rights, if I have any at all? Do I need to contact Adult Protective Services? He has power of attorney over her, which he had done by his attorney, over a year after my mother was diagnosed.

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

Your stepfather's behavior may be partially explained by age and stage. It's understandable that a person growing up during the depression"”not this one, the last one"”might seem tight-fisted with the family funds.

And understandable, too, that a 90-year-old may feel determined to keep active and moving and try to dance every dance"”apparently even at the risk of jeopardizing his dance partner. He may even be in denial about the reality or severity of your mother's condition.

I'm assuming your attempts to reason with him have been met with deaf ears. And frankly, it may be difficult or impossible to get him to change his ways. Think of enlisting outside help from someone your stepfather might be willing to hear. If he is generally likely to obey doctors' orders, for example, you might find a doctor who will have a frank and forthcoming talk with him about your mother's health and capabilities and the affect of travel on her. Or perhaps he'd be more wiling to listen to a trusted family friend. Try arranging such a discussion; you need not be present when it takes pace.

Also"”and this is a rather delicate matter"”be honest about what you need and want and what your mother may need and want. Your question notes that your mother's cognition and awareness are fading fast, but that your stepfather is overcoming her will and that you want to keep your mother with you. In evaluating the next best step, be guided by what's in your mother's best interests"”and avoid having her final time being spent in the midst of a tug-of-war between you and your stepfather.

As you intuit, it may be difficult to intercede legally in this situation"”and here again, your mother's best interests will hold the most sway. If you believe your stepfather's caretaking is truly contrary to your mother's best interests or that it borders on the abusive, you can ask a local probate court to appoint you or another person as her legal guardian or conservator. If a court is convinced that your mother needs this kind of outside supervision, it can override a questionable power of attorney. To find out the requirements in your area, do a search of "probate court" along with the name of the city or county.

Finally, Adult Protective Service representatives generally won't get involved unless there is some serious fraud or abuse occurring. However, you may be able to discuss your situation confidentially and get some possible creative solutions"”for neighborhood visitation or adult daycare services, for example"”through the local Area Agency on Aging at www.n4a.org/about-n4a/?fa=aaa-title-VI.