23 April 2017

New girl

Image courtesy of Pixababy
Getting to grips with my parents' domestic and financial affairs has been one of the challenges of supporting them over the last 8 months. In many ways, the experience has mirrored that of starting a new job...except I didn't apply for this one and the terms and conditions are terrible - no pay, no holiday and on call 24/7!

You know how it goes in a new role...

Day 1: Your predecessor has left no handover notes, you haven't got a clue what you're doing and the learning 'curve' is more of a cliff face.

I first dipped a toe into these murky waters during a fleeting visit to my parents last September. My sister, who lives closer to them, was becoming overwhelmed by all of the meetings that followed Dad's unexpected hospital stay, and asked if I could deal with one of them.

I travelled there and back by train on the day and had only 5 hours at their house in between. By the time I'd met with the social worker and occupational therapist and dealt with some unexpected domestic crises - including the boiler going wrong - I was left with just an hour and a half to start on the paperwork.

My first port of call was the 'treasure chest'. This beautiful old wooden box holds all of my parents' most important documentation. As children, we never knew exactly what it contained, but Dad had drilled into us that, in the event of a fire, it was to be hurled out of the window to safety first. Never mind the women and children, the box had priority. In this age of digital records, I doubt it is quite so important. Dad reassured me that everything I needed would be in there, but he was unable to give any more of a steer than that - for the last 18 months or so, he has struggled to manage his affairs, hence our intervention.

Armed with a pen and A4 notepad, I pulled a 4-inch pile of paper out of the chest and began to scribble furiously - organisation names and addresses, policy numbers, maturity dates, interest rates... I was making great progress, until, out of curiosity, I opened the box file that had been lying on top of the chest and which I'd moved aside without exploring its contents. Only to discover it was also full of documentation, some from the same organisations, but some completely new to me. My heart raced and my hands shook as I tried to sort it all out. By now, I had less than half an hour before my taxi arrived to take me back to the station. 

With 5 minutes to go, I had pretty much brought order to this new pile...then found a plastic bag stuffed with yet more papers. I hate leaving jobs unfinished, but my time was up; I had to admit defeat until my next visit.

Three months in: You're getting the hang of the job and have started to implement some new systems.

Over the next two visits, with more time available to me - and the help of my sister - I finally managed to identify which was current paperwork and which was for shredding. This in spite of unearthing another foot-high (no exaggeration) pile in a filing cabinet and having to deal with Mum's repeated interruptions to ask 'I don't suppose I can, but is there anything I can do to help?' A typically kind offer, but even before her dementia took hold, Mum would have been unable to assist; the division of labour between my parents has always been very clear and finance and admin have never been her domain.

Image courtesy of nuttakit/
A need for order is a key feature of my obsessive-compulsive disorder and this carries through to all areas of my life. Filing my parents' paperwork away into new, neatly labelled folders was not only satisfying but also calming. The distress of witnessing Mum and Dad's decline has been eased by knowing that at least I have control over one element of their lives. And the focus required to deal with this admin provides a welcome distraction from my emotional upset.

In addition to creating a paper system, I input the key information into spreadsheets. Oh, how I love the way those little boxes enable me to bring order to chaos. Whether adding up figures or sorting data, they are the ultimate in control...even if I did end up with a lot of blank fields and more questions than I'd started with.

Take the bank statements, for example. Why was £250 leaving their current account every month? Why were they paying a monthly £7.99 to Dixons? And what was in the safety deposit box that cost £15 a year to maintain? I still had dozens of pieces to slot into place in the giant puzzle of my parents' life.

Six months in: You realise that your eagerness to put your stamp on the job was misplaced - some of your new systems just aren't working

It took months to fully populate my marvellous new spreadsheets - and numerous letters seeking clarification and information from the relevant organisations, which I drafted for Dad to read and sign. I logged every last detail that came back, conscious that, should anything happen to me, somebody else would need to be able to pick it all up.

Then I realised that a) I was duplicating some records and b) there is such a thing as too many spreadsheets. It was difficult to remember where I had recorded what and I was spending far too much time updating everything. I had too much else to do to waste a second - from re-negotiating a horribly expensive telephone package and renewing maturing bonds, to setting up direct debits for bills and collating information for Dad's tax return.

So began the Great Spreadsheet Cull... And, at last, my systems seem to be working.

My sister and I now spend much of our spare time supporting our parents and sometimes I feel resentful of that. I have to keep reminding myself that every minute we devote to them helps them to remain in their home, which is where they really want to be. So long as they are together, and in the house they have shared for nearly 40 years, they will, I think, be reasonably happy. They are still so very fond of each other and it is deeply touching to see their continuing mutual affection, in spite of their increasing physical and mental challenges.

One thing I know for certain about this job is that I will never resign from it.


Lindsay said...

I have started to cull my own paperwork and simplify it all as much as possible. I hate the idea that my daughter will end up having to sort out my paperwork one day, but it will presumably happen at some point - even if, as I hope, not for many years - so the simpler the better! When I retire I can have a veritable bonfire because loads of paperwork is work related! I don't know why we tend to horde stuff, a very human trait! My dad kept bank statements and paid bills going back years! My mother learned from this and her financial affairs etc. were therefore much simpler.

Helen Barbour said...

Good thinking and great planning, Lindsay! My Dad was always very organised, but I had never realised he wasn't throwing anything away...

Rosie Longstocking said...

There is nothing like a good spreadsheet to help you feel ordered and in control even if the red column far outweighs the blue! I will be practising chucking stuff as a way to prepare for a lighter life and less chaos when I am gone. Perhaps we could go to Lindsay's and have a joint bonfire party...though the fire brigade would probably be called if I added my stuff! Good luck with it all Helen, I have absolutely no doubt that you will be very organised and efficient at your new job. I love the last sentence.

Helen Barbour said...

A bonfire sounds very therapeutic, Rosie! Thanks for your lovely feedback.

Paul_B said...

Well done Helen on helping your parents in so many ways. Your description of the 'lifecycle of a spreadsheet' is so familiar - I start out believing that a structured spreadsheet is going to change my life, and I end up unable to find the said spreadsheet or unable to recall what it was intended for.

Helen Barbour said...

Hi Paul! And then there is the problem of using so many rows and columns that if you need to print it out, either it runs to 100s of pages or the font size is so small that you can't read it...