A Senior Blessing's Cathy Jason Discusses the Struggles & Joys of Providing Care for Her Parents
By Richard Melella & Cathy Jason
It is inevitable. As we enter our golden years, and if we are fortunate enough to have our family close by, a day may come when we turn to our children for support with our long-term living arrangements. Such is the circle of life; Parents provide care, comfort and safety while guiding their children into adulthood, and their children, in time, may reciprocate that same care for their parent.
What type of senior care options can we look forward to? Well, depending on the situation, perhaps moving a parent into a retirement community, or an assisted living arrangement may be the best option or, as many families are now electing to do, we invite mom and dad-or both- into our home.
Regardless of the choice we make, the outcome may result in unexpected transitions for everyone involved. And, if the latter option is chosen, then we need to be prepared. Taking care of a parent at your home will present itself with unique challenges, but it is also an option that can be very rewarding, providing our families with a lifetime of wonderful memories.
Cathy Jason, owner of A Senior Blessing, faced this dynamic with her own mother, a few years ago. We published the backstory of how the process of helping her mom who suffers from Alzheimer’s, prompted Cathy to start a senior assisted living business.
In the coming weeks, we will focus on the process that Cathy took in making that decision to bring her mom home. Exploring the initial thoughts of uncertainty that she faced, to the process she followed in preparing her home for her mom’s arrival. Cathy’s retelling of this event is insightful; it is a narrative full of tips and practical strategies benefiting to those of us facing the inevitable question of long-term care for a parent. Especially when it’s a decision that has mom or dad moving into our home to live with the family.
Funerals tend to make us introspective, and it was at my grand aunt’s funeral where the reality of what lay ahead for me in regard to my own mother’s condition really came to the surface. My Aunt had finally lost her battle with dementia. The funeral was at Central Presbyterian Church in Merced California. I remember sitting in that old wooden pew thinking, this was the very church where my parents- 70 years earlier- had exchanged their wedding vows- and now, here I am with my mom paying our respects to her sister.
I looked at my mom. She was sitting quietly with my husband and daughter listening to the pastor and friends retelling stories of my grand aunt. Three years earlier, Dr. Mehdi, a respected Neurologist in Fresno had diagnosed my mom with Alzheimer’s. It was a diagnosis that my dad wouldn’t agree to and because my mom believed whatever my dad said- she refused to believe it as well. They were both in denial. Sitting there with my mom I kept thinking. Did my mom understand this moment? Does she remember any of the stories being told? Does she remember her wedding day?
Around the time that we learned of my mom’s condition, my cousin who was now sitting in the pew in front of the church, had a decision to make. Her mom, at that time, was in the advanced stages of her dementia. It was difficult for the family to see my aunt, a strong and independent woman, in the condition that she was in. My cousin eventually decided to have her mom come home to live with her. I listened in awe as my cousin stood in front of the church describing how much she treasured taking care of her mom over last three years of her life.
I sat there in that church thinking the word treasured was not one that would have come to my mind at that time. The past 3 years seemed more like a decade and the word overwhelmed seemed more fitting. I loved my aunt and hearing the stories about her during the funeral service reminded me of how independent and strong she was. my cousin described many fun and humorous moments of their time together during those last years. To be honest, at that moment in time, I just could not picture myself in her shoes. My Aunt during this stage was far from her independent lively self and at the end her life she needed 24-hour care. I thought to myself I could never ever do that! I could never be in a position where I could provide that type of care for my mom.
And then, as life would have it, two years later, at an urgent meeting regarding my mom’s worsening condition, I found myself second guessing that initial notion. My mother’s Alzheimer’s was progressing and I was sick to my stomach with anxiety and overwhelmed about the potential outcome. Reluctantly my dad, agreed with the rest of the family that moms Alzheimer’s was at the level that he could not manage appropriately. He was 93 and she was 90 and they both realized they needed help. Even so, my father refused to let me help by contracting professional caregivers to come in their house. I felt like I was handcuffed.
At least he was being consistent with his attitude about caregivers. A few years earlier the family tried to hire a highly-qualified RN. We discussed this with my parents. Dad was somewhat dismissive of the decision and kept to himself and mom was glad that help would be coming to the house.
The day arrived for the nurse to begin care for my mom. At that time, she had lymphedema and other conditions that needed monitoring and we were relieved that a nurse would be there to support our mother.
However, my father had a different thought in his mind.
He met the RN on the front lawn and said if she came in he would get his shot gun. Of course, she called the police. Dad talked his way out of trouble and explained that he did not own a gun- but the nurse didn’t know that.
Suffice it to say, this was not going to happen. She felt it was in her best interest to decline the job- and we couldn’t blame her. I sat in the living room of my parents’ home wondering what was next.
The three years after the initial diagnosis and the period prior to that family meeting was emotionally draining on all of us. I felt helpless and I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I thought about all the urgent calls to me at my work from Adult Protective Services, following up on concerns regarding the elderly couple living in the neighborhood and the loud threatening old man living with his ill wife. I was commuting 45 minutes to work each way 5 days a week, and the pressure to perform seamlessly in a high-pressure job while this was happening in my personal life was a source of incredible frustration and anxiety for me.
Here I was, an executive assistant in a declining economy where layoffs were happening all around me. The recession had hit. I was raising a teenage daughter, my parents – due largely to their mental health- were becoming more unreasonable each day, and on top of this, I was in a relatively new marriage- my poor husband!
At the meeting, dad suggested that mom go and live in an assisted living home. After much research on my part a decision was made to find my mom an assisted living facility. We decided on Sunrise Assisted Living and over the next 6 months my mother had not only adapted to the staff at Sunrise, but she blossomed under their care! The staff was kind and professional; mom was doing better. Yet she was not well enough to live on her own.
It was time to consider other options.
My dad’s behavior towards having a caregiver coming to his home had not changed. The other option was to move mom into a smaller home-style, yet highly supervised environment specifically designed for Alzheimer’s care. Unfortunately, the aggressive phone calls from my dad to my mom that were regular occurrences at Sunrise Assisted Living would not have worked in such a small confined living arrangement. My father’s demeanor, largely due to his dementia, would have the kind staff at Sunrise in tears and I was sure that it would be more of the same in a group home arrangement. Furthermore, moving mom to another care home was not very appealing to her. She knew what was going on around her and she wanted and needed to be with her family.
She wanted to come home to her family.
It was my husband that suggested that we bring mom home to live with us. Our youngest child was about to graduate and move out. We would be empty nesters, or so I thought.
Nonetheless what we were considering made sense to me. I weighed both pros and cons. It was around that time my mom asked if she could come live with my husband and myself. My mom is a kind and respectful woman, and when she asked this of me, my heart just broke. What was I going to do?
It’s a strange feeling to have your mother ask you directly if she could move in with you and your husband. It was as if she was an orphan and she was asking me to take her in and entrust herself to me.
Ironically, she had no idea that my husband and I had been discussing the same notion. We saw how improved she was and that we needed to move her in with us.
I was starting to realize that the new job I had as a manager was not the right fit for me. I underestimated the time commitment required of me and I knew the job was taking me away from my husband and daughter.
I had an epiphany of sorts, life is short and the job was at a stress level I no longer wanted in my life. My body was beginning to pay the price. It was the perfect storm and it required me to stop and think about my life.
What did I want to do for the next 10 years? I prayed about the options: do I stay in my current position? Do I bring mom home to live with me or find her another assisted home arrangement?
It was about that time that my heart and outlook began to change. It all made sense. I wanted to bring my mom home. I wanted her to be with her family.
“What I thought was not an option at the funeral for my aunt, was now becoming a desire of my heart.”
We have no regrets. I can still remember fondly those nights when I would help get her ready for bed; the heartfelt thanks my mom would express to me for opening my home to her and the feeling of gratitude I felt for my husband. I am so thankful for his encouragement and support to move my mother in with us.
I knew then as I do now, that there would come a time when I would need to re-evaluate the living arrangement with my mom.
“Foremost on my mind was the notion that it needed to be an arrangement that would best serve her. This was a reminder for me to reflect regularly on my ability to care for her at home. I also realized that the choice I made, may not be appropriate, or workable, for another family dealing with the same situation.”
We all have limitations and unique situations that may lead to us to make alternative living arrangements for our parent and this was the defining sensibility that guided my decision making. But initially, I knew that my family could handle the challenges and changes that bringing my mom home created in our lives.
As you will see, this journey of healthy caregiving is all about planning and then being flexible; enjoying the ride, and honoring and loving your parent. When those areas are in place. The decision is a win/win for both parent and child.
My mom stayed with us for 3 years. In time, it was obvious that the best care for her would be to move her into an assisted memory care facility. Both my mom and my dad are there together now in the same assisted living home. Dads previous behavior has tempered much over the last few years- again a result of the dementia.
As I reflect to those days with my mom at our house I have only fond memories. There is a poem that really defined my desire to support my mother for the period that I could. I’m not sure who the author is, but I’d like to share it with you:
[Letter from a Mother to a Daughter]
My dear girl, the day you see I'm getting old, I ask you to please be patient, and most of all, try to understand what I'm going through.
If when we talk, I repeat the same thing a thousand times, don't interrupt to say: "You said the same thing a minute ago,"... Just listen, please. Try to remember the times when you were little and I would read the same story night after night until you would fall asleep.
When I don't want to take a bath, don't be mad and don't embarrass me. Remember when I had to run after you making excuses and trying to get you to take a shower when you were just a girl?
When you see how ignorant I am when it comes to new technology, give me the time to learn and don't look at me that way... remember, honey, I patiently taught you how to do many things like eating appropriately, MATH, getting dressed, combing your hair, MATH, and dealing with everyday, life's issues.
The day you see I'm getting old, I ask you to please be patient, but most of all, try to understand what I'm going through. If I occasionally lose track of what we're talking about, give me the time to remember, and if I can't, don't be nervous, impatient or arrogant. Just know in your heart that the most important thing for me is to be with you.
And when my old, tired legs don't let me move as quickly as before, give me your hand the same way that I offered mine to you when you first walked to kindergarten.
When those days come, don't feel sad... just be with me, and understand me while I get to the end of my life with love. I'll cherish and thank you for the gift of time and joy we shared. With a big smile and the huge love, I've always had for you, I just want to say, I love you... my darling daughter. "
Next: Bringing Your Parent Home. The Family Meeting and Preparing Your Home for Assisted Living.