Taking Over My Mom’s Digital Life

An aging parent and the limits of technology.

Illustration by Paul O'Connor

Illustration by Paul O'Connor

January 30, 2017 | Magenta

In the final months of last year, my mom’s health became unpredictable. I’ll leave out the particulars since this story isn’t about dealing with medical issues. It’s about the related stuff: the overwhelming logistical detritus and the limitations of the digital tools designed to make that mess less messy.

A few days before Christmas, a game of telephone between me, my mom, and my brother revealed that it was officially Time to Mobilize. My brother booked a last-minute flight to Pittsburgh. I, meanwhile, I tried to calculate the approximate moment I’d become such an unqualified 30-something. Nothing says I-don’t-deserve-to-be-an-adult like responding to the pain of the people you love most with willful ignorance. And I’d spent months in that stupor. I’d planned to spend the Christmas break binging Netflix from Brooklyn.

Instead, I pulled into the driveway of my childhood home a few days after my brother. I was prepared to handle only the most practical of concerns, because that’s how I avoid emotional work. My mom was spending nearly all of her energy and time attending to her most fundamental worries, so she was having a hard time keeping track of her monthly bills and understanding investment statements.

The problem was compounded because her identity had been stolen midsummer and the process of detangling herself from the fraud involved a procession of new credit and checking accounts that had to be subsequently shuttered. Everything from the cable bill to the Consumer Reports subscription was tied to a chaotic jumble of logins and defunct accounts. The water bill hadn’t been paid in months, the gas company was demanding a cashier’s check, the only credit card was 10 days from expiring.

I created a spreadsheet. Color-coded rows provided space for each account number, username, password, date of last bill, and so on. Catharsis in columns. Then I started trying to piece the puzzle together cell by cell.

Here’s the thing about trying to unlock another person’s digital filing cabinet: it’s designed so you can’t. The simplest logins would let me update a password with an email. But the more complicated ones wanted me to name her first best friend, her father’s middle name, the last four digits of her childhood phone number. So even as I was resolved to eliminate all the emotional aspects of the process, I was forced to confront some very literal prompts asking me if I really even knew my mother, if I was qualified for this responsibility. And, in one bout of special panic, I remembered a conversation she and I had in the summer, when I told her to answer these kinds of questions incorrectly to outsmart the cleverest of digital thieves.

I wish there were a Fisher-Price internet. Like the mini kitchens built for toddlers, this internet would be free of heat and sharp edges.

I’m 33, the age when my mom had her first kid (my aforementioned brother). I’m the same age as my two closest friends, who also had their first babies in the last year. I, meanwhile, have been growing a hyperactive species of control monster in my gut. It loves Google calendar invites and shared shopping lists. (Nothing says “I adore you and care about your well-being” to a boyfriend quite like a geo-targeted iPhone pop-up reminder to buy more toothpaste.) I’m not used to caring for other people in my day to day. I’m accustomed to using technology to manage a singular and rather self-centered existence.

My love of control is nothing new; the technology has simply helped it find fresh expression. In fifth grade, after a school trip to Colonial Williamsburg, I was so convinced my mom would forget the Sunday night pick-up that I just avoided the line of idling cars altogether and walked home. So while I was unloading the contents of my overnight bag into a hamper, she was frantically dialing neighborhood parents from a parking lot pay phone.

Now, it was my turn to dial through the fear. Trying to organize my mother’s online accounts felt like architecting a digital Jenga tower. I removed the dial-up internet account she’d been paying for since I was a freshman in college, but tacked on a new Gmail account just for creditors. I loaded all of her accounts into Mint, then destroyed the effort after realizing the iPhone app doesn’t make it easy to toggle between accounts. I signed up for a digital password manager that securely stores endless logins and account numbers. But where to store the password to the password manager? Everything felt precarious and overwhelming.

Of course, this whole effort only makes my responsibilities easier. My mom will never use the password manager app; she only turns on her iPhone 4 if she’s traveling. She will never rely on the Google calendar invites for the doctor’s appointments, or the reminders to call her nurse every Friday, or the push notifications to take her pills. Her reminders are written in her French cursive scrawl on the random notes that paper the refrigerator, the kitchen table, her desk.

I wish there were a Fisher-Price internet. Like the mini kitchens built for toddlers, this internet would be free of heat and sharp edges. No phishing emails, no multi-factor authentication forms, no broken urls. Just emails from friends and family and a single app that gives you the weather report and reminds you to pay the mortgage with playful animations. I want it for my mom. Because the technologies that I’m grateful for — the ones that make it possible to hack together a system of literal checks and balances — are the same technologies that increasingly alienate my mom. The digital organization that brings me sanity gives her anxiety.

I’m the first generation to have an adult relationship with my parents that’s been transformed by technology — calling home from a cellphone in college, texting for advice on sleepless nights, following retirement hobbies on Facebook. Now, I’m using it to navigate an impasse that both I and my mother were unprepared for, trying to care for her in ways she may never understand.