When children become their parent’s parent

Mom in 1946 after a ride from Meadows of Dan, Virginia to Gibsonton, Florida.

Three years ago, my then 83-year-old mother fell at home and fractured a vertebrae in her back.

She didn’t tell anyone about the fall and told us she strained her back.

Over the next several weeks, her “strained back” got worse. Six months after the fall, she couldn’t get out of bed. Over her protests, I called an ambulance for a trip to the emergency room where doctors discovered the broken vertebrae had fused itself to another, aggravating her advanced osteoporosis.

After six weeks in a rehab center, she returned home but her condition continued to worsen. She withdrew from friends and family, hiding behind locked doors, asking for food and supplies to be delivered and left on the porch.

Three months ago, I couldn’t get her on the phone. She had changed the locks on the house so I broke in and found her half-on, half-off the couch, unable to get up. She was emaciated and the house reeked of feces from her three dogs which could not go out.

I cleaned her and the house up and tried to talk her into going to the hospital. She talked me into letting her “sleep on it” and I left. The next day we found her on the floor where she had fallen shortly after I left. EMTs from our local rescue squad found her breathing and heartbeat erratic and her blood pressure dangerously low. They worried she might code before getting her to the nearest hospital 41 miles away.

We made it and the hospital spent several days pumping her full of nutrients, treating bed sores and other conditions. They recommended, once again, rehab.

After five weeks in a rehab center, where she fell three times while trying to get out of bed without calling for a nurse — fracturing her pelvis in one fall — the doctors ruled out her returning to home. Around-the-clock medical care is not readily available in the rural area where she lives so I exercised the medical and durable power of attorney that she had granted 20 years ago “just in case” and placed her in an assisted living facility. She fought it at first but seemed to accept it over the next month.

On August 1 — exactly one month after moving into the assisted living facility — she woke up in the middle of the night, failed to call for a nurse and tried to get up. She fell — hard — and fractured her left hip. Later that day, surgeons put her broken femur back together with a titanium rod and two screws.  After 10 days in the hospital, she returned to her third rehab center in three years.

I visit my mother every day — driving the 37 miles to the rehab center before heading for her home another 25 miles away to take care of her dogs and make sure the house is secure.  When she fell three months ago I found more than six months of unopened mail in her home and scores of unpaid bills. I assumed control of her life, paid off her bills and — with the help of my brother — set up a program to assure she is taken care of for the remainder of her life.

At 86, my mother — for the most part — is a shell of her former self. At times I see remnants of the woman who — in 1946 — climbed aboard her Harley-Davidson Knucklehead and rode 800 miles — by herself — from Meadows of Dan Virginia to Gibsonton, Florida, to meet her future in-laws. She continued to ride that bike for several years after my father died in an industrial accident three years later.

All but gone is the woman who — after my stepfather died in 1985 — decided to see the world and spent the next several years traveling that world on her own.

The frail woman I visit each day now weighs 95 pounds. Her skin tears easily from the protruding bones from advanced osteoporosis and she screams in pain from the slightest movement. Yet — when she is at her best — she still fights to regain her strength and struggles through the exercises in rehab with the hope that she can — one day — regain mobility.

As I watch her moods switch back and forth from determined fighter to dejected, declining senior, I try to keep up a strong, supportive front when with her and then turn into a sobbing mass of jelly after I leave the facility.  The past three years have taken their toll on me and those around me.

When the phone rings, I answer with a dread that it is more bad news from the rehab center. I don’t dare venture too far from the area where we live. Something could happen that requires my presence.

Friends tell me I need to let go, to reduce my daily visits to two or three times a week at most but her face usually brightens when I walk in the door of her room.  I don’t always know which person she will be when I visit. On some days I just sit and let her blast away with tirades about what a traitorous son I have become for putting her in her current “hell hole.”  On other days she thanks me for taking care of her.

She’s my mother. She took care of me for the first 17 years of my life. Now its time to do the same for her.

(NOTE TO READERS: What does this column have to do with politics? Absolutely nothing. What does it have to do with this web site? Absolutely everything. A number of readers have noticed my increasing distraction in recent months. My wife, who serves as my barometer to reality, says the distraction began three years ago when my mother fell for the first time and hit its peak in the last three months. She’s right, of course, as she always is. My focus is elsewhere and my attention span, as well as my patience, is short. My temper is short and recent events have taken its toll. I wrote this column so readers can — hopefully — understand because whatever happens in my life affects Capitol Hill Blue.)

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15 Responses to "When children become their parent’s parent"

  1. Fivebyfives  August 25, 2010 at 7:22 am

    Doug:

    The title is quite appropriate. My father turned 86 this Spring and died two weeks later. For two years I was my “parent’s parent.” It’s very hard because you love them but they drive you nuts at the same time. I found myself torn in two different directions because there was my own life being set aside to see to the needs of my father.

    All the trips to the ER’s, the doctors, the labs, the nursing home, and finally Hospice took its toll. Yet my father paid the far greater price and belive me on this, you WON’T REGRET A SINGLE MOMENT YOU SPENT IN CARE-GIVING. It is not obvious now, but you should take pride as a human being that your mother raised you to have such a concience.

    In the last year of his life, and especially now, I didn’t see the frail body that had betrayed the mind of this man. I saw (and still do) the cocky, slightly obnoxious fighter pilot from World War II. He was a scrapper, and so apparently is your Mom. I am so sorry for you or anyone to witness all this, but at the same time proud.

    So, good on ya.

  2. Siannan  August 25, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Doug,

    You owe no one an explanation, and there is certainly no requirement that you lay bare your private life and your mother’s health for everyone to know. If people here get on your nerves because you happen to be dealing with more than most, well blast them and they don’t need to know why. You’ve said often enough that this website is not a democracy and if they don’t get it now, they won’t ever. Just do what you have to do, that’s more important than anything else.

  3. Bogofree  August 25, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I know personally the pain and anguish that Hal went through and continues to deal with and now yours is front and center. Both of you have eloquently expressed that and I thank you both for sharing.

    I have also been it the same position as you, Doug, and it is not something you can really understand until you experience it. What is so frustrating is the memories of what the person was before they became a shell of their former self. I remember cleaning out my mother’s pictures and just the idea of what a vibrant young woman she once was sent me into melancholy state for a bit. You picture of your mother on a motorcycle was reminiscent of mine on the running board of a vintage (to me) 30s sedan.

    When I coached baseball I would tell the kids that someday there will be a payback. That I and the other coaches and parents are devoting countless hours to provide them with a rewarding experience and someday it will be their turn. That speech was quite pat for me but our youth leagues are sprinkled with those who are now returning the effort. That is exactly what came to mind with your last paragraph.

  4. woody188  August 25, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Hang in there Doug. Remember the good times, forgive and forget the bad. My mother is 57 and has advanced Fibromyalgia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. She stopped remembering bills around 55, wrecked her car after running a stop sign, and her insurance had lapsed. The resulting lawsuits took most of what she had saved for retirement over her 30 some years as a registered nurse. Poof. Gone.

    It’s frustrating but all we can do is love and support them and keep faith that we will see them again on the other side. We’ll keep you and your mother in our prayers.

    If you need help with the site, I still offer my assistance as a volunteer as I have for the last few years. I have broadband access again now via 3G cellular, so I’m hooked up and ready to roar. :)

  5. Carl Nemo  August 25, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    We’ve interfaced via email Doug and I’ve mentioned my mom’s similar travails since the first week of February when she fell down the basement stairs in her mid-80’s back in Ohio. She’s been moved nine times from hospitals to rest homes and back since her original head injury so I can bond with your angst.
    Her condition is declining with her being moved back to rest home care a few days ago.

    Those that care do understand. CHB is more than a simple political website. I hope you realize some if not most of the members do care about you as a person and not simply as some some web entity to use and abuse in order to post an opinion. : )

    We have our squabbles, but I hope we all realize we are part of something special being part of the greater CHB and RR familiy; I.E., friends in thought regardless of our differences in opinion. : )

    Carl Nemo **==

  6. GAR  August 26, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Truly one of the most difficult challenges in the lives of so many baby boomers. It doesn’t ease the realities you face on a daily basis, but know that friends and readers are thinking about you, especially those of us who have also been through it. Take care of yourself as well as your mother.

  7. SuZQ  August 26, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    You know, Doug, I may not always agree with your political opinions, but I never doubted your sincerity as a good, caring, and kind person. I have been through almost identical situations as you describe with my mother, my mother-in-law, and now my own husband, and stress, worry, sadness, and even anger are just a part of your life now. If my friends judged me based on my demeanor in the past few years, I probably wouldn’t have a friend to my name. Thankfully, they don’t. Those that care about you will support you and lift you up when things are at their worst. And you will find a strength in yourself that you never knew existed. Though it may not always seem that way, your loved one is happy you are there and they do appreciate you, and you will be so glad you did everything you could after they are gone. Hang in there.

  8. Bill  August 27, 2010 at 5:38 am

    There is another aspect of the situation that one must consider. That is the persons, like me, who are 70 and in good health but have “issues”–like heart failure being treated by medicines and a pacemaker, or lung cancer which is in remission, or multiple hip, knee, and ??? replacements. We are OK now, but the outlook is not too great. None of us wants to go out like your mother because the burdens it places on both ourselves and our children or spouses would be too much to bear. Don’t think for a minute that your Mom doesn’t remember minute details of that motorcycle trip, or the joy of her life when everything was working and healthy. I assure you she does, and being as bad as she is now has to be beyond frustration.

    I moved to Asia for a number of reasons–I like the people, life is amazingly affordable (our masseuse just left and collected $5.50 US for the two, hour long massages she gave; I ate a huge lunch at a delicious buffet for $4; Dinner for both of us costs $15 for a huge meal of superb food with beer to drink. If we eat in, the costs of a meal drop to less than $6, and the quality gets even better) and I met a woman I loved and who loves me in return.

    Those are some of the reasons I’m here, but a major one is that I didn’t want to become dependent on my daughter and son. They couldn’t handle that and would have dumped me in a nursing home somewhere, and before that happens I will attempt to fly off the tallest building I can find. Once you are strong and independent, you cannot fall into a life of begging others to do the simplest of things for you, like helping you out of bed to go to the toilet. My kids couldn’t handle that.

    But my wife could. And will. Without rancor or resentment. She will do it because it is her duty as my wife, and because she loves me and because I make her life peaceful and good. So I live here, far from my children. The strange thing is that my children resent it, and feel I have abandoned them. They fail to see the contradictions that presents, and are angry at me. They aren’t kids–one is 41 and the other is 40–but sometimes I am amazed by their immaturity. Both are well-educated and yet both fail to see what they are doing and saying.

    So I sympathize with you, Doug. But I have to take your Mom’s side. She knows what she wants and the frustration of not being able to accomplish it has to be driving her crazy. You need to understand that, and to look at things from her perspective, taking yourself completely out of the equation.

    The most frightening thing for us ‘olding’ people is that when we finally decide that it just isn’t worth trying anymore, we are usually unable to physically act to terminate ourselves. Dr. Death was doing a wonderful service for people with his euthanasia program. Putting him in jail was wrong, stupid, and a cruel act against the elderly. When it is our time to go, you younger people have to let us…

    • Teresa  August 27, 2010 at 3:14 pm

      Bill, my own Dad (age 77) thinks a lot like you on the subject of letting his kids take care of him. He probably thinks many of the same thoughts you voiced here.

      Let me tell you, though, I’m nearly 55, and it would be a PRIVILEGE and an HONOR to help my Dad if needed, even to help him to the toilet. That man gave me life, and worked his bum off to put food in my mouth and a roof over my head, and he didn’t have much education to do so. He was not and is not a perfect father. But I would be thrilled to help him if needed, not that he will ever allow it.

      Teresa

  9. sherry  August 27, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    Doug, I will spare you the details, but I am right there with you.

  10. Teresa  August 27, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Doug, I just read this… it really, REALLY hit close to home. My late ex-husband took care of his parents in this manner. They both wanted to stay at home, so he hired in-home caregivers, which is an adventure in itself. My FIL lived to be 86, with progressive dementia, and rare moments of lucidity. My MIL had stomach cancer. Just the thought of losing his parents, and the strain of daily caring for them, killed my ex by heart attack one month to the day before his mother passed away, and two months before his father did the same. My daughter (22 years old at the time) had to handle ALL of these deaths, and the myriad of funerals, probate, wills, bills, you name it that followed, along with finishing her last six months of college and dealing with her immense grief at losing an entire side of her family in one fell swoop.

    My point is, you have my deepest empathy for the situation you are in right now.. and…………..Take care of YOU as well. The stress is very aging, and hard on the caretaker. Be sure to get some down time, some YOU time. Hang in there. We care.

  11. jim0001  August 27, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Please accept my condolences. I faces some of the same obstacles and issues that you do. Thankfully at this time they are not as complex as yours. I will hold you and your mother in my thoughts and prayers.

  12. Senegoid  August 27, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    A good parent is be a patient parent who will give their children the most valuable thing they can – their time, and along with it their undevoted attention.

    It works both ways.

    Like many who have made comments I’m also a career, but share the joy with my brother. Mum is near on 89 and pretty stuffed physically – on oxygen 24/7, wheel chair and takes more drugs than Keith Richards and Ozzy Osborne combined.

    Oh, and she has a compulsive disorder thing – making her bed is a technical challenge – this has to line up with that and so on; every thing in the home has its place right to the millimetre.

    But we do have lots of fun and go out 4 or 5 times week to our favourite restaurants where everybody makes a fuss over her; this is what she lives for. She is as tough as a wombat’s arse and still has her sense of humour. Everything is good but it does take time and patience – as it would appear we all know.

    Oh BTW, Mum has spent heaps of time in hospital and with many a specialists – what did it cost her? Zip. Our (Australian ) government rewards the wives of our vets (who die from war related injuries, although “war related” can be a broad definition) free medical.

    Mum will live out the rest of her life with love and security – wouldn’t it be wonderful if everybody’s mum (and dad) could do that.

    Maybe that is what we as a people should collectively strive for; more love and security, rather than power and greed.

    Cheers and kind regards to those who have shown their humanity and decency above.

  13. Janice  August 28, 2010 at 12:40 am

    Sorry to hear about your mother, and what you all are going through. My husband’s great aunt, just turned 99, moved in with us this spring. She wasn’t happy about it – but she was no longer safe living at home by herself, and was not ready for a nursing home. We made an in-law apt. in our home, and now she gets her meds on time, is never alone, eats three good meals a day, and goes to the doctor when I think she needs to – not when she is too sick to know the difference. My father lived with us, too, until three days before he passed. He did not want to go to a nursing home, and he didn’t. I can look in the mirror and know that I did my very best – not always good enough to meet some standards – but always my best. It’s tough. It’s emotionally draining, and physically hard – but it’s what you do for your family. Doug, I would suggest you do not listen to your friends. Go see your mother as often as you want to. Don’t set yourself up for regrets. What are a few trips in the grand scheme of things? Consider bringing her to your house to live with you – if she can. Our great aunt did not want to move here – she put up a good battle – but there were no choices. You have to step in and be the parent – and that’s a tough transition to make. But it is one that has to be made. Seniors loose their persepctive – even if they are still sharp – they can loose that fine line in their judgement. Do what you gut tells you is the right thing to do, and you will be able to look yourself in the mirror and know you did the right thing. For me, at least, that’s important. No regrets.

  14. DejaVuAllOver  August 28, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Maybe misery loves company, but your column made me feel a little better for not being the ONLY distracted, moody SOB on YOUR web-site. (although YOU have a lot more right to be so since it’s your site, your labor, etc.)

    Seems to me I’ve been running into a LOT of people who are ticking time bombs and go ballistic at the slightest provocation, often entirely or seemingly unrelated and irrelevant. I just thought it was a sign of the times. You are a pillar of sanity compared to more than several people I’ve met, lately.

    May God and luck be with you both and thanks for the great site, even with your travails.

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