In this blog article I’m going to address the stage in life where the kids are taking care of the parents to the extent where the line of who is the parent and who is the child becomes blurred. This is a subject that is hitting close to home at the moment as I move further along the path of caring for my aging mother, now pushing beyond 94 years old.
I never had children of my own although I was married for a considerable number of years. As my marriage was always rocky, I didn’t want to bring a child into the world under a disadvantaged situation right from the start. I know that some people think that a baby will solve marital issues but I wasn’t of that mind. Anyway, that’s a subject for a different day. As life would have it, I seemed to have taken care of other people’s children along my life’s path. For several years, I had my ex-husband’s niece and nephew living with us when we first got married. They were teenagers, so I had the rebellion stage with which to attend. Then, later, I had the kids of my friends that I’d baby sit, so I became familiar with 5-10 year olds. I once taught school for middle kids so I had to learn what made them tick. In the end, I never had to feed, clothe, and shelter my own children. But the universe had a way of teaching me what this would have been like in a very surprising way, at least for me.
My parents moved out west closer to my brother as my father came down with Alzheimer’s disease. He passed in 2007 with my mother caring for him until the last day. Then she had to fend for herself with my brother looking in on her periodically. As the years went by, I travelled to her condo in Southern California to visit for a few days first yearly, then multiple times per year, then every 3 months. It may not seem like a lot but there was the week of preparation to leave my own home and my cat at the time, the actual trip and then the catching up afterwards. It was about a month of time for me dedicated to the one trip. My family never saw it that way. For them, it was just the few days I was out there. But when I was with my mother, it was 24/7. They would come over to my Mom’s place, bring some food, like bagels and feel like they had done their job. When I visited, I cooked, sometimes cleaned and took her places. I began to feel that I was really taking care of her. Then there were times that she wasn’t well during my visits when I had to take her to the doctor. A few times I had to take her in for an elective procedure – like her cataract surgery. During other times, she had illnesses like bronchitis or swollen legs wherein I had to take her to the doctor. Meanwhile, my doctor brother was at home oblivious to what I was handling for my mother. He never accepted that I was really helping him take care of her. Again, the universe had a strange twist of fate.
My brother, yes the same one that was a doctor, came down with cancer. He valiantly fought it for close to eight years, but in the end it took him down. Probably his poor eating habits, exercising very little and maintaining a very stressful practice as well as his private life didn’t help any either. His children and wife all had huge expectations of the lifestyle they wanted to lead and he was the breadwinner and played that role until his last day. He refused to stop working until he was totally incapacitated. In other words, retirement was not in his vocabulary. Well, rather unexpectedly, again from my perspective, my younger brother who lived close to my mother died.
I was next in line to care for my aging mother. I quickly went out to California and began the role of primary caregiver for her, except it wasn’t a visit now, it was full time. To the surprise of the rest of the family (his wife and kids) I began to live there just returning home long enough to take care of my own home. This went on for 10 months with me doing all the activities of daily living for my mother; this included making her healthy meals, shopping to make sure food was in the house, maintaining the cleanliness of the condo to my standards (which included steaming the floors twice weekly for example), doing the laundry twice weekly and running her to all her appointment regardless of whether they were for doctors or to get her nails done. There’s a reason that people don’t have children at 70 years old. Being responsible for another person at this age is seriously tiring. I was more than tired. I was exhausted. Multiply what I was doing at her house with flying home and in a couple weeks, catching up at my house and then flying back to start all over again.
As time went on, my mother’s condition began to decline making it necessary to have outside support for just a few hours daily when I went away. After several trips and the world coming out of the pandemic, I decided that it was best to move my mother closer to me in Virginia. Understanding how stressed I was and that I was not going to fly back and forth forever, she agreed to move. Then I had to find a really nice place for her, pack her things, move her and then unpack her. Is this so different than a child leaving home and the parent helping them to move?
Although my Mom loved the place I chose and everyone quickly learned her name, her health took a turn for the worse within a few months. She had several falls, landed in the hospital for 4 days and the following month went on oxygen. Apparently all the years of smoking finally caught up with her. Well at 94.5 years old one can’t say that it shortened her life by much. She’s very lucky that my father made her stop smoking about 30 years ago. Unfortunately, she did gain about 30 pounds which she’s since lost over time with great difficulty. Currently, other medical problems are popping up. I still feel that for a woman that’s almost 95 years old, she’s led a fairly healthy life up to now with only a few medical blimps on the screen. Watching her decline in mental health is disheartening to say the least. Day by day she’s loosing cognitive ability to the extent that someone needs to watch her in the afternoon. There are activities were people come in during the morning hours and again at night so this is the main time for care coverage.
So just like a young child, that one must watch, make sure they brush their teeth, change their underwear, put on their glasses, go to the doctor and stay out of trouble, I’m watching and helping my mother. I get snacks for her in kid’s sizes, even giving her the twist off top yogurts that she really likes. She loves peanut butter and jelly on crackers, bananas and simple food. She’s eating more complicated food like salad less and less. I cut up her meat for her, but she’s eating about half of a portion these days. I open snack packs of nuts/raisins into a little bowl and she likes that. She sits in her recliner chair and closes her eyes most of the day.
Recently I bought an Amazon Echo Dot speaker where I can say, “Alexa, play Frank Sinatra for one hour”. She seems to really enjoy listening to her era of music and it appears to be very calming for her. I’m learning how to use this little device to provide wake up notices and alerts to go to the door to get her breakfast at a certain time as she can easily forget that it’s been delivered.
So now you have it- Food, clothing and shelter are now my responsibilities and all things in between. When her hearing aid gets lost I have to figure out how to get another one. I buy her new clothes and a new coat as it’s much colder here than where she came from. She still likes to sit in the sun on the front porch but there are few days when it’s warm enough for her as we approach December in Virginia.
As I leave my Mom after each visit, I wonder how much longer she has to live. Each day brings us closer to the last day. The thought tears at my heart every time I leave. I’ve also learned that as a caregiver, I can get lost in what I have to do for her, so I try to squeeze in some exercise and outside activities. All of this is not so different that a parent taking care of a child.
If this isn’t role reversal, what is? Everyone that lives long enough watches their parents’ age. It’s just really hard when it’s your turn. Comments are always welcome.