“You love your mother more than me” said Josh, my 10-year-old son.“You’re always with her, or on the phone talking about her.”
I named the project Operation Rescue when, after visiting my mother, I could no longer sleep at night. What I had found during my visit scared the hell out of me. She had stacks of unpaid bills, plumbing leaks and an empty refrigerator, save for some outdated take-out food and a few rotten tomatoes.
What shocked me most was that my mother, a beautiful, classy, meticulously groomed lady, suddenly looked shrunken and small. Her clothes hung off of her, and she smelled like she needed a shower. She insisted on driving her 20-year-old car and got lost on her way to the grocery store.
On the phone she kept saying she was fine, but I sensed otherwise.
Trying to be a good daughter, I decided to make her a home-cooked meal. When I opened the oven, old pots and pans came tumbling out of their long forgotten storage spot. After marinating the chicken, I turned on the oven and was greeted with a loud pop and a burning smell.
Finding solutions, such as assisted living and home care, is the easy part. What no one ever talks about are the challenging family dynamics and the guilt. Having to make difficult decisions about the welfare of those who raised you brings out feelings of denial and discord between siblings, threatening to unravel even the best-laid plans. But aging is a family affair and no one gets through it alone.
After recognizing that your parent is not OK, the hardest thing to do is to take action. No older adult calls their child one day and says, “Hi, I am ready to give up my home and stop driving, and by the way, I need help showering. Now, how are my grandkids doing?”
I used every trick in the book during Operation Rescue, and I would do again. I am not ashamed to admit it. If you have ever had to take care of a parent, you know exactly what I’m talking about: “...just try it, you don’t have to stay,” throwing out clutter while your parent isn’t looking, hiding the price of just about everything, paying bills online, making sure they still get mail, and the list goes on.
After a week spent packing “just the essentials” for a “temporary” visit, with plane tickets in hand and a taxi waiting outside, my mother announced, “Thank you so much for coming, but I’m not ready.”
I will be forever grateful to my brother for his response: “Mom, get in the car.”
Recently another aging professional who also took care of her mother told me the most important decision she and her sisters made was to put aside their differences and work together to support their mother. What made a deeper impression on me was her observation that when her siblings were unified, her mother sensed it, and became calmer and happier. In fact, it was her story that inspired me to write mine.
Every family has one member who lives closer, or is viewed as more responsible, or has more time, influence or money. The key is to figure out what works and to ensure that each person fulfills their assigned roles. It isn’t about you and it doesn’t have to be equal or fair, just effective. Every person plays an important part and should be appreciative of the other’s efforts and strengths.
My mother complained for months after I moved her, and then one day she told me, “You were right; I should have done it sooner.”
Your parent will complain and even sabotage your efforts, and it will take time to see results. Keep your own guilt and self-doubt in check and delegate responsibilities. Simplify their environment and instead of reacting when they complain, just listen, redirect and encourage. And, most importantly, be patient.
For me, Operation Rescue had unexpected benefits. Yes, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it was also one of the most rewarding. I got my mother back. At times, it felt like a burden, but in retrospect I understood that it was a privilege. Caring for aging parents with respect and dignity is an important value that I learned as a child in my own home. I am grateful to my siblings who worked with me to provide my mother with quality of life in her final years. We all sacrificed to put her needs ahead of our own.
So when my son complained that I spent too much time with my mother, I looked him straight in the eye, and with a quavering voice and steely determination told him, “Josh, my mother spent her entire life caring for me and now she needs me. One day, you will do the same for me.”
He never complained again.
When my mother passed away, Josh was the one who got me through it. He held me and told me I was a good daughter and that he was proud of me. Watching me care for my own mom was a powerful lesson for him.
At my mom’s shiva I met a teenager I had never seen before. I asked her how she knew my mother. She told me she was a volunteer at the assisted living community, and came to help with religious services on weekends. She said my mother was an active participant, and she got to know her and love her. That’s when I knew I had done the right thing. Instead of living alone and waiting for a crisis, Mom’s “final chapter” was full of dignity, engaging and meaningful connections, and family—a fitting end to a rich life story.
Rena is administrator of Premier Home Health Care Services of Connecticut. She has more than a decade of leadership experience in the field of aging, most recently as a senior living executive. She is a member of professional geriatric committees in Connecticut and Westchester.