“I did it to make them notice me.” The 80-something gentleman’s blunt confession took me by surprise. Paul was explaining why, without warning, he’d closed the joint bank account he had with his only son James, while James and his family were on vacation. (Names changed.)
James discovered this when he tried to pay taxes on their jointly-owned beach house, as previously agreed. When James demanded to know what was up, his dad said, “Talk to my lawyer,” and hung up.
Things swiftly careened downhill. Paul’s lawyer persuaded him to sue James to get his name off the deed. James counterclaimed for half the rent money that, up to then, both parties had regarded solely as his Dad’s.
Now they glared at each other across a mediation table with me.
James was hurt and puzzled by his father’s behavior. He’d never misused the bank account. When Paul was sick and hospitalized he wanted James to handle his finances. But as he recovered he began to resent his loss of control. Rent checks in both names came to James (who duly deposited them in the joint account). Bank statements came to James. When Paul had called the property manager to question a plumber’s bill, she’d said, “I deal with your son. Ask him.”
As we age, we not only shrink physically but also may fade from other’s awareness. We retire, and soon nobody calls us for advice. If we get sick or lack the energy to go out we can easily become isolated and lonely. Family and friends don’t mean to abandon us – but until there’s a crisis we just vanish from their thoughts. Clerks ignore us. Waitresses speak to us like children. We feel as if we’re disappearing.
By closing the bank account, Paul was making a plea—one he couldn’t bring himself to make directly. “Look at me, Son! Listen to me! I can still make decisions. I can still think. I’m not helpless. I’m not invisible!”
In the mediation, they heard each other. An escrow account solved the legal problem. Feelings would take longer, but both wanted to reconcile. Paul admitted he shouldn’t have closed the account without talking to his son. James saw that he’d been insensitive to his Dad’s need for autonomy. They agreed to have dinner together once a week and to share honestly whatever was on their minds – even if it would require a tough conversation.