The Dark Side of Mental Incapacity
September 22, 2014
By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
What does it mean for a person to lack mental capacity or be mentally incapacitated? Merriam-Webster defines it as “an inability through mental disorder or mental retardation of any sort to carry on the everyday affairs of life or to care for one’s person or property with reasonable discretion.”
Most people only think of someone as lacking mental capacity or being mentally incapacitated if they have something like Down syndrome, but “retardation” as we know it only accounts for a small slice of those who fall under this umbrella. Sometimes previously normally-functioning people become mentally incapacitated because they get into an accident that causes brain damage. Others lose the ability to function because they suffer a trauma and develop a psychological disorder. And, of course, there are those who have their mental capacity taken away from them by age and disease.
But while all of that is informative, it doesn’t really do a great job of showing you what it’s really like for someone who has to live with this type of problem; someone like Maureen.
The Decline of Maureen
Maureen didn’t have what you would call a picture-perfect childhood. When she was three, her mother was sent to an asylum for mental problems and subsequently died. Her father remarried; he was a strict disciplinarian, and her stepmother was not kind. Maureen’s body developed early physically. She was overweight and bullied by other kids, and at 10 suffered a rape at the hands of one of her stepsister’s boyfriends. The family didn’t believe her and did nothing about the incident.
Somehow, Maureen made it through to adulthood, but she never really felt good about herself, and problems and mistakes seemed to follow her. She dropped out of college with less than a year to go, wandered through her twenties, and at 30 had an out-of-wedlock child with a married man who immediately denied their relationship when he learned she was pregnant. In the years that followed, she frequently took odd and sometimes demeaning part-time jobs to supplement her incredibly low income.
Perhaps partially due to all of these unfortunate things in her life, she began to progressively experience wild mood swings and surprising emotional outbursts. Sadly, trouble continued to follow her. When her son was four, she was badly burned in a fire. A few years later she fell down a flight of stairs at church and had to be hospitalized. Was it bad luck or coincidence?
Finally she sought out psychiatric help and was quickly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, severe anxiety, and more. The doctors put her on several medications, and for a while they seemed to help. Nevertheless, every few years, she experienced some kind of outburst or downturn and her doctors changed or modified her medications, hoping to finally find the perfect combination.
Then, when her son finally went away to college, the bottom dropped out. His freshman year, she spent a few weeks in the psych ward after he came home to find her in the middle of a seizure. In subsequent years, her condition worsened. Following several psych ward visits, she complained about people plotting in the bushes outside her window, and once inexplicably had no memory of driving her car to the middle of the city and being found wandering around by police officers. Combinations of medicines were tweaked, and again she went through counseling and therapy, but frightening problems kept cropping up intermittently.
Incapacity Hurts Everyone
Clearly, Maureen had gotten to the point where she could no longer mentally take care of herself, except that it wasn’t that clear to her — it never is. Her son and friends were afraid to leave her alone for fear that they would return to find her gone – or worse. Maureen was convinced that they were the ones with the problem. That paranoia is unfortunately all too common in these situations. She couldn’t understand why everyone was overreacting so much and why her friends couldn’t just listen to her when she said that people were after her. For guardianship purposes, the legal definition of incapacity is black and white, and Maureen wasn’t quite at the point where authorities could step in and declare someone to act as her guardian.
Maureen felt betrayed by the people closest to her when they took her car away and started handling all of her financial matters. Why was everyone treating her like a child? It was more demeaning than any of those odd jobs she’d ever done to support her son, and she was hurt and angry almost all the time.
Life wasn’t much better for Maureen’s family and friends. They spent most of their time vacillating between feelings of fear for her safety, guilt for taking away her freedom, anger and frustration towards her for making things so hard, and sadness and shame at what she had become.
The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that Maureen actually was fairly lucid most of the time. She understood just enough to make her feel like the people she trusted the most were being unfair to her and not giving her a chance. No one was happy, and it was a constantly grueling experience for everyone close to Maureen that they all felt trapped in..
A Plan Can Help
No one ever imagines something like this happening to them, which is why few families plan for incapacity and death. But not doing this is a mistake. While having a plan in place won’t magically fix the problem or give you back your loved one, it can ease many of the conflicts that tend to occur in these types of delicate family situations.
Not sure exactly how to make this kind of plan or what to include? Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney as soon as possible. Basic plans generally include a Last Will and Testament, Revocable Living Trust, Power of Attorney, Health Care Surrogate and Living Will. Each serves an important function. Your attorney will walk you through the details and tell you what to focus on based on the specifics of your situation. Having a plan will save your family a lot of suffering.
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Strategic Planning With Purpose
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