Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Caring for Aging Parents

The Woman to Woman Challenge this week is:

There are many women who still have one or both parents living. As our parents age and move into their 80s and 90s, they often need a family member to care for them. Are you currently the caregiver for a parent? Perhaps you are the caregiver for a beloved grandparent. What have you observed through this process and how have you worked this caregiving into your family life? What difficulties have you encountered, and how have you resolved them? What has been successful for you?

I hesitated to respond to this topic….
How could I? Why would I?
But on further reflection, I decided I did have a thing or two to say.

I never had aging parents. My mother died at age 53 and my father died at 55. Their deaths both came sudden and unexpected, snatching them away from this earth in the very same week. Although divorced for many years, living in separate towns and not having spoken for quite some time – they died within days of each other. My father’s repose came on Dec 16, 1983 and my mom died a handful of days later, on Dec 21. It was a discombultating double whammy of grief when I was just 26 years old.

While the rest of the world was singing “Deck the Halls”, cooking a fat goose and baking mince meat pies I was helping my stunned siblings plan a funeral. For many years there after Christmas lights and baking smells conjured up images of death in my mind. To this day I still cringe every time I hear the song "Silent Night."

I wasn’t part of my dad’s service. It was done and over before I was able to get a flight out of the frozen Midwest to his Arizona town. I did help my sibs scatter his ashes later. But there was never any real closure, no real goodbye.

I did attend my mother’s funeral. That service taught me to despise the ritual of open caskets. That sallow faced corpse was not my mother. But it is the last image I have in my mind of the woman who gave me birth, and the picture of it linger in my brain still.

There was so much unfinished business between my parents and me. Truth be told, they could have probably lived to be the age of Methuselah and we would more than likely never have managed to resolve the old baggage. Ours had been a volatile household, a crazy kaleidoscope of laughter and nightmares. I left home at sixteen and never looked back, having only a few strained contacts with them after that. There had been so much water under the bridge, so many senseless wounds. Still, with their deaths it became clear and final there would be no more opportunities to apologize on either side of the hurts we'd lashed out one each other. There would be no resolution, no forgiveness, no settling into peace.

So I set my jaw and trudged on through the world, trying to make whatever sense of it I could. Throughout all the changes and transitions that were to come over the ensuing years I would sometimes wonder – what would my parents think if they could see this? Would they care? Would they approve? But there was no voice to caution me, encourage me, or even to tell me to figure it out for myself. Their absence shaped me in a way all its own.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn some important lessons from them both about caregiving.

When I was about nine my father's mother came to stay with my family for a few months. I balked when I came home from school one day to discover my previously private bedroom had been totally rearranged to make room for me to share it with my bratty younger sister so that Grandma could move into her room. No one had told me this was even being considered. I simply came home to find it was a fait accompli.

Once I got over the injustice of that, I enjoyed the attention I got from my grandmother. Still, the thick undercurrents of shifting emotion in our house were palpable. But nobody ever admitted out loud how difficult the whole situation was. As a result of that silence, it was impossible to ever seek out support. Ours was a family well accustomed to wearing many masks, painting on a charade of polite pleasantries on the outside so matter what conflicts lurked down deep.

I never did learn the circumstances that led to my grandmother coming to stay with us or what precipitating her leaving, which seemed to me as abrupt and unexpected as her arrival. Maybe there was talk about it that I was not privy to. As a child I had no power or influence, so I was not considered worthy of consulting. Perhaps the conversations were not clandestine at all...maybe I was simply so self absorbed that I was oblivious. Whatever the case, those events left a strong enough impression on me that when I had my own family I was determined we would have open family councils to talk about any decisions that would affect us all.

On the other side of my family was my maternal great-grandmother, Gertrude Young Kurtz, who lived to be 103. Throughout all the years of my life she lived with my mother's parents.

Grandma Kurtz had four daughters (not counting the one who died as a child.) My grandmother’s sisters would come to visit from time to time, but seldom shared in the responsibility of caring for their aging mother. I know there was sometimes resentment over that. My grandmother sacrificed her health, strained her marriage, and gave up many life opportunities out of a sense of duty to care for her mother. There were plenty of times she wished her siblings had been willing to help share the load. More than once I heard caustic remarks about the cross my grandmother had to bear - both from her own lips and those of my mom.

There's just no way to sugar coat it. The relationships between the women in my family were thoroughly toxic. Although seemingly capable and willing to offer comfort and affection to the boys in their brood, when it came to how mothers and daughters interacted in the generations of our clan, bitterness and belittling were served up with daily bread. My great grandmother could at times be quite dreadful to my grandmother. In turn, my grandmother chopped away at my mother’s self esteem year after year. Keeping on the family tradition, my mother dished out venom of her own to me. I’ve always said that God knew what he was doing when he sent me only sons.

More than once I have wondered, had my own mother lived, would I have been willing to care for her in her old age? I honestly don’t have the answer to that.

It’s one thing to go through the complicated business of shifting roles from the dependent child to the responsible head of household with a parent who kept you safe throughout your own period of weakness and vulnerability of childhood. It’s quite a different matter to find yourself in the position of taking on responsibility for the well being of a parent who repeatedly broke your spirit or in other ways caused insidious harm.

Yet I’ve seen families do it, and some do it quite well. I've seen miracles of healing take place in the final season of an aging parent who had been beastly during their own children's growing up years.

When I lived in Washington State I worked for an Area Agency on Aging – coordinating all the caregiver training classes across six counties. I met with hundreds of women and men facing the challenge of taking care of aging parents, grandparents or other infirm relatives. Some were from strong, intact families. Others were from fractured networks of kin that had committed crimes of all kinds on each other over the years. In every case, no matter what the past history, there were both poignant challenges and rich blessings for those who stepped up to the plate of assuming the caregiver role.

Later I served as Marketing Director for a fancy retirement community with an attached assisted living facility. There I met with family members to coordinate the move in plans for those who either could not or would not continue to live with their kids. We had many long, soulful talks about their reasons for selling their homes and moving away from all that was familiar to them.

I celebrated with the ones who had visits from children and grandchildren multiple times each week. I mourned with those who were alone in the world – either because they had never had children or were estranged from the ones that they did.

I’ve given much thought to issues of aging and what our responsibility is for our failing family members.

At times I've felt it was selfish and harsh when daughters or sons were unwilling to make needed sacrifices to care for aging family members, regardless of what the past history might be. I thought it was heartless and cold to stick someone away in some paid for facility surrounded by strangers to make one's own life flow more comfortably. But over the years I've come to understand that family relationships are complicated and diverse. What works for one will not work for another. I have no room to judge someone else for what they will or won’t do in this regard.

I've watched families agonize over concerns for the safety of elderly parents who insist on continuing to live alone. Who makes the decision when an older person should give up driving? Who has the right to intercede in how the senior chooses to spend their money or if they refuse prescribed medical treatment? At what point does a person's right to live independently in any fashion he or she may like give way to their family members' worry about the older person''s ability to meet their own daily needs?

There are no simple answers.

Now that I am the matriarch of my family I begin to plan which choices I may make if the fates should rob me of my body's health or lucidity.

Would I go to live with my kids or grandkids? I think not. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. This I do know for sure - if circumstances ever do lead to that EVERY child in any household I may enter will have a chance to voice the impact it has on them.

To read what others have shared on this same topic, check the links at Lei's blog over at My Many Colored Days and / or those listed at
co-host Morning Glory's blog over at Seeds from My Garden.

And if any of this touches a cord with you - feel free to share your own thoughts and add your link to the growing number there already. Even though this writing challenge has been named "Woman to Woman" I'm sure that ALL voices who might care to enter would be more than welcome.


Jen said...

I can relate to your feelings about open caskets, the most upsetting thing about my grandma's death was seeing her at her service. I wish I had not gone to the viewing.

I enjoyed your thoughts & your honesty!

Lei said...

Belladonna, you have such a way with words. I cannot imagine losing 2 parents in one week, regardless of the state of that relationship. How tragic. But your family life was not unlike my own, and that I can relate to. I am often confused and unsure of myself as a parent, because I learned very little from my own parents.

I lost my mother a few years ago, also before gaining closure. Hers, too, was an open casket, and although it had been some time since we'd spoken, she never looked so unfamiliar. I hope that her absence, as you described, will shape me.

The female relationships on my mother's side are also very complicated and conditional. Ugh. And I too think what it might have been like if after so much friction I'd have had to care for my mother. It certainly wouldhave been difficult. How inspiring it must have been for you to witness that in other families. I am always amazed by others' tales of survival in that regard.

You approached this topic from such a personal standpoint... I appreciate this insight into who you are/where you came from. Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us!

Morning Glory said...

Wow, what a story. I was deeply touched by your experiences. I think the greatest outcome of it is that you have chosen to stop the cycle and bring healthy elements into your own home.

Thank you so much for sharing all of this.

Angela said...

It is hard to loose your parents and then grandparents...leaving you as the oldest elder in you immediate family. It is now your time to set the tone for the future as you age and prepare for the coming days.
Thank you for sharing with us this week.


Enrich Your Word Power!

Word of the Day
Quote of the Day

This Day in History