I’m a middle-aged kid in the middle, sandwiched between parenting my three adult children sporadically and much more frequently my 92-year-old widowed mother. I’m not alone, but part of a cohort of reportedly 43.5 million family caregivers, many of whom are aged 50+, according to a 2012 report by the Alzheimer’s Association. I know I’m very fortunate still to have a parent alive.
About two years after my husband passed away four years ago, I started to construct a new life. I was about as happy as I could be under the sad circumstances. I had grieved in groups and one-on-one with a therapist, was healthy, busy with work, an active volunteer, had moved into a condo, met new friends, and re-met and was dating a man I knew in high school.
Then, the other shoe dropped when my father died a year later. My parents had just moved into an apartment in a senior community. As I sat on the edge of my father’s bed when he was near the end, he asked me to take good care of my “fragile” mother as if she were a piece of Meissen porcelain. How ironic, I thought. This fragile woman was the power source in our home and a very strong, controlling person who always had been emotionally unavailable to her husband and children. Yet, she believed everyone should circle around her as planets circle the sun. She had a cadre of acolytes who adored her. She’d woo them with her charm, style, and good looks as a tall, stunning woman with a presence that took over every room she entered. On good days, people found her clever, theatrical, smart and fun, and she’d delight them with tidbits about her past including the saga we had heard for years, how she was forbidden to go to New York City to become an actress. This is one of many frustrations she never reconciled.
In fact, trauma in her 20s and unresolved grief left her so depressed that she spent most days in bed, even as we were growing up. As her children, our prime role was to cater to her, and she harbored fantasies that we should behave much as kids did in Victorian England—to be seen and not heard. I never fit that mold as I challenged her every directive. Many days–once she lifted herself out of bed, she’d come after me with a hairbrush when I’d talk back and refuse to do something she demanded such as clean my room. There were screams and a chaotic scene as my sibs and I would scatter. I’d run out the front door and to my best friend’s house to escape. For most of my life, my mother and I had a relationship propped up with toothpicks, quick to collapse when I did anything to annoy her. And that happened frequently.
She is no longer that person. She has mellowed, is less critical, has been very generous with money and possessions, a good grandmother to six grandchildren, and overall is easier to be around. However, since turning 90 two years ago, she has worn her age around her neck like a noose. When she looks in the mirror, she sees an old woman who is no longer beautiful. She’s also become less active and completely anti-social, is orthopedically challenged, and is slowly sinking more and more into a severe depression.
I knew she needed help. I was the point person by default because I’m the only one of her children who lives in the same city. I am in charge of her and most all decisions affecting her health; I share in overseeing her finances. I could handle it, I reasoned. I was older. I had had good therapy, but whatever I thought was resolved in therapy, here I was back again seeing problems rear their ugly heads. I was supposed to be the parent she had never been to me. Guilt was my constant companion. As soon as I found myself receiving urgent calls from her more often, “Meg, you must come now; I can’t find the TV clicker,” or “How do I turn off the lights?” I would rage. I thought I can’t deal with this night after night and have any semblance of a new life.
It irked me, too, that my three siblings who live out of town were dispensing advice in dribs and drabs from the sidelines. They weren’t getting the emergency calls, schlepping to the hospital every time she fell, or visiting her every Sunday. And I felt it wasn’t fair to burden my children, only one of whom lived in our city and had a demanding job that requires frequent travel. I tried meditation, Pilates, Yoga. I would go away for a long weekend and get a text message from a caregiver that she had fallen and gone to the hospital. I needed a guide. I did an online search, hoping to find a Parenting Our Parents for Dummies. No luck. There are websites, however.
I made an appointment with my therapist who helped me see rationally that she was an old woman and mostly right now just a huge annoyance. “Your mother is depressed. Lonely. Look at all you handled so well, which was much worse, the death of your husband and father,” she said, making me feel much better.
After a visit to my mother’s internist, we thought antidepressants might give her a boost, even make her happier. I dragged her to a psychiatrist who warned that he could give her every drug in his arsenal, but nothing would work if we didn’t get her out of bed, dressed, and moving each day. We tried, but every effort resulted in her anger at me, my siblings when they visited, and every caretaker we hired to spend a few hours with her; many of whom she fired.
One day my mother threw a walker at one. The aide made the fatal mistake of trying to get my mother up and moving, as instructed. Another day when roused to go to physical therapy, my mother pitched a fit, screamed at the therapist, fell, and when she arrived at the hospital, proceeded to tell the staff that her caregiver had pushed her.
My brother, a retired doctor, warned that if mother didn’t move to stay strong, she would fall again and that could be her end. It was prescient for two days later she fell and was rushed to a nearby hospital where we discovered she had broken three ribs, her clavicle, and had a slightly collapsed lung. In the emergency room, she made numerous declarations that all she wanted to do was die. That was a big problem since she was in a Catholic facility.
Thus began one of the most stressful weeks of my life. I got calls in the middle of the night that sounded like she was talking in Tongues. One night she was panicked that there were strangers in her hospital room including a man. “Come here now and get him out,” she screamed. I explained that it was a male nurse. After a week in the hospital, she was moved to a skilled nursing facility. My male friend, a retired attorney whose parents were no longer alive, wisely suggested it for rehab. She listened because she liked him. He liked her as well. Not being related made their relationship easier for both. She perked up when he visited. Thank goodness. He visited my mother in the hospital when I couldn’t and helped me sort through decisions logically.
That first day in the nursing home, as I stroll down the wheelchair and walker-lined corridors, I feel sad that my mother has landed in such a facility although it is the best of the best. It pains me that this might be her last stop. Unwittingly, this has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Every day she is urged out of bed and soaks up the attention. A speech therapist comes to test for dementia and she is visited by other angels of attempted repair. She now eats in the dining room at a table with other seniors, rather than alone in her room, and even went to happy hour and music therapy. She gets out of bed and is dressed every morning for the activities that day. She has started back using her walker to go to the bathroom on her own.
She’s finally in a better place emotionally too after three weeks. We now have conversations when I sit in her room. And I have her full attention, unlike my kids who always are checking their cell phones and texting. We frequently talk about my kids and food–hosannas of praise for chocolate, cherry pie, real vanilla bean ice cream, all discussed in delicious detail. She has even accepted the fact that independent living might be out of the question and for now said she wants to remain where she is. It’s safe, structured, secure and, for the first time in years, she’s socializing. We are going to see how this works on a trial basis for one month which will give her more time to decide if this is permanent. She may opt to go back to independent living in her apartment, where she’ll be totally isolated except for 24/7 caregivers, will languish in bed, get weak and very likely fall at some point. As sad as this might be, my sibs and I all feel it has to be her choice if she wants to be left alone to die.
I now recall with a shiver the days that led up to the last time my mother fell, and I thought it was the beginning of the end. Any animus with my mother has dissipated as I see her in a different light. She’s an old woman who needs me desperately. I matter to her for the first time, or at least that she can verbalize and I believe she respects my decisions and who I am today. As we embark on a much more promising stage, I am proud of her for trying and of myself for appreciating that everyone deserves to have a dignified life up until the very end.