Coping with Elderly Father’s Potential Incarceration

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Reader’s Question

I won’t go into great detail about what’s happened, and by the time you read this it could have gone either way, but my father could be going to prison.

The reason is benefit fraud which, I hasten to add, was only because he took some very poor advice from someone who granted him a benefit years ago, and said he didn’t need to declare it — that it would be on record. So he trusted him and never did. But he’s aware he’s done wrong, and has right away offered to pay every penny back.

My father is not a well man, and I am a paid caregiver for him. He has major back problems (like slipped disks), diabetes, and a hiatus hernia. I also feel he suffers greatly from depression due to other awful events in our family life, such as the death of his wife (my mum) in 2010. He has always had mood swings, and I feel events from his childhood have greatly affected him, although none of this has ever been diagnosed by a doctor because he doesn’t want to consult one. He is not very good with confrontation and is quite sensitive.

So, even though friends have said they feel it shouldn’t come to prison since, technically, he’s disabled, and he has started to pay everything back, I can’t keep it out of my mind that it could happen. If it does, he simply wouldn’t be able to handle it.

I love my Dad despite his mistakes, and this whole situation has put my mental state in a very dark place, where I feel physically and emotionally drained, I’m not sleeping, and I’m not eating right. I don’t know what to do, because I’m terrified of the outcome. What little hope I have keeps getting trampled by that little dark voice reminding me of all the other events in life that I hoped would work out but never did.

How do I cope with this?

Psychologist’s Reply

I can tell you care about your dad very much and want him to have the chance to enjoy his health and freedom as he approaches his elder years. It sounds as if you and he have had a very difficult time — especially over the past 24 months. Losing your mother, in addition to having caretaking responsibilities for your father, would be overwhelming enough without the added stressor of legal problems and the looming threat of imprisonment for your ailing father.

The symptoms you are experiencing (feeling drained, not sleeping or eating well, feelings of hopelessness) are understandable given this very stressful and abnormal situation. What you are describing may be a depressive episode (or a similar mood disorder or anxiety disorder) that would be best diagnosed and treated by a mental health professional. Reaching out for support is the first step in getting help for yourself, which, in turn, will help your father as you assist him in navigating his legal troubles. To achieve this, it is imperative that you are healthy and are able to advocate for your father. When they are in a similar situation, I often remind clients about the drop-in-cabin-pressure instructions given at the start of every airplane flight. If you were on an airplane with your physically disabled father and the oxygen masks dropped, you would be instructed to first assist yourself before assisting him. This situation is no different: you must assist yourself first, so that you will be able to effectively help your father.

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It sounds as if you have been talking with friends about the situation. Have any of them (or have you) considered consulting with a legal professional (lawyer or barrister) about the situation — many universities have legal centers in their law schools that can offer reduced-fee or pro bono legal advice. Your community may also have resources for legal help. Gathering more information about your father’s options may help both of you. A lawyer or barrister may recommend a medical and/or psychiatric evaluation for your father — and he might be more receptive to seeing a doctor if a professional advises that it could help with his legal troubles.

As you sort through your legal options and begin taking time to get your own support, make sure you carve out time to do the things you and your father enjoy together. Since you are also his caretaker, find time when another family member or another trusted caretaker can stay with him, so that you can continue to enjoy your own hobbies, activities and friends. Even setting aside an hour or two a week could make a big difference in your stress levels. If the worry about your father is still getting in the way of your functioning (eating, sleeping, etc.), you may find it helpful to set aside a specific “worry time” — usually during the day. If the worry comes at night, give yourself permission to put the worry off until its scheduled time the next day. A mental health professional can give you more tools like “worry time” and other support to help you through this difficult time.

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