My 29th wedding anniversary changed my life. It had nothing to do with my marriage.
That night, my husband and I decided — together — to take on the care of my elderly parents. Michael and I went out for dinner, where I drank too much bourbon. Later that evening I wound up sitting on the floor of our hotel room, sobbing for what they had lost — and what I was about to lose.
See also: Caring for a parent with dementia
We had been at a wedding in California when my father, then 92, called to ask us to hurry home to Minneapolis. My mother had stopped eating. With some difficulty and at great expense, we got there. (Note to airlines: Really? An 89-year-old mother who may be dying is not an emergency?) We found that my mother — a large woman — had lost 50 pounds in three weeks and was sleeping all the time, like an animal crawling into the woods to die.
Instead, we took her to the hospital, where doctors discovered a football-sized cyst on her liver. They treated her, then pronounced her cured and ready for rehab. After banging my head against numerous walls, I got her released to a rehabilitation facility in Washington, D.C., where we live.
By this point, it was clear that my parents could no longer live alone. My trips to and from Minneapolis had become increasingly frequent, as one parent or another was often in medical distress. On one occasion we were in Colorado hiking on a mountain, ironically named Oh Be Joyful, when my cellphone rang with another summons to the Midwest.
Until then, life was good. We had an empty nest, engaging jobs, full social lives. However, I strongly felt I had a moral obligation to my mom and dad. Michael was just as adamant that it was the right thing to do. We had both grown up next door to our grandparents and watched how our parents cared for them in old age. I didn’t realize it was optional.
So on a warm day in June, I was in the Minneapolis airport with both parents in wheelchairs. My sick mother had to fly first class; she never could have walked all the way back to coach, where I sat with my dad.
She was hospitalized again in Washington, where the doctors immediately punctured the cyst and she got better. Relieved of the burden of caring for her, my father stayed with us, contentedly smoking a cigar in the backyard and listening to classical music when not visiting my mom.
When my mother recovered, my parents moved into a senior living community. It wasn’t bad, as these places go, but they hated it: “Too many old people,” said my dad. And my mother? She was furious at still being alive.
“Why can’t I go like a lady, like your grandmother?” she asked me a couple of times a day.
“Because Grandma had a stroke,” I said. “You’re not sick. I’d have to shoot you.”
My mother was an extraordinary but difficult woman. She was proof that every cliché reflects a true thing; she was a colorful character, a force of nature, larger than life. A childhood friend of mine called her the most creative woman on the planet. She started a business when none of my friends’ mothers worked. She wore a bright red dress — which she made — to my wedding. Now she was wheelchair bound, and she was miserable.
We talked about moving them to a place they liked better. There was a lot of arguing. Now my mother said she was happy where she was. My father said he would leave her if they didn’t move. She said she would leave him if they did. I covered my ears.
A year later, they moved into a condo in a senior complex closer to our home and adjusted quickly. Yet even though my parents were now “living independently,” as the infamous phrase has it, I was on call full time for doctors’ appointments, outings, shopping and companionship. Michael and I handled all their bills and banking. I shoehorned my work, which was flexible, among these various caregiving demands. In many ways, the experience resembled having small children: a lot of whining, much vying for attention, ever-present equipment in the trunk. Unlike with children, though, it was desperately sad: My parents would never grow up.
Not long after the move, my mother’s health took a turn for the worse. She died in a hospital emergency room on a cold day in January. I was with her in the ambulance, and I sat by her bed all day. I was holding her hand when she died.
When I told my dad that Mom was gone, he made a sound like a wounded animal. They had been married 70 years. Michael and I had agreed that if my mother died first, my dad — who did not want to live alone — would come to live with us. He moved in just hours after my mother’s death. He was now 97.
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From that point on, my main job was taking care of my father. We lived in a construction site as we rebuilt the basement to make it safe and comfortable for him.
So focused had we been on my mother’s frailties that we hadn’t realized just how far my dad had deteriorated. He was a physically powerful man with a great sense of humor. Although he was stooped and shuffled, he still had a strong grip and a twinkle in his eye. We had overestimated his abilities, however, both physical and cognitive.
Suffice it to say that taking care of him was physically and emotionally exhausting.
After my father had been living with us for three months, I ran away from home for 24 hours. With Michael’s blessing, I got in my car and drove four hours to the home of close friends in Chapel Hill, N.C. During the drive I listened to a book on tape, sang along with the radio and, once, pulled onto the shoulder of the road, where I started crying uncontrollably. Out of nowhere. For my mother? My father? My life, interrupted?
My dad began a gentle but inexorable decline. His memory, his health and his judgment all worsened. When his geriatrician suggested home hospice care, we lucked out and got the nurse from heaven. Through the Veterans Administration, we got a second lovely aide who helped my dad bathe and dress. Yet a third aide had to be hired to fill in the gaps; thankfully she was an angel.
One morning, the house alarm went off at 3 a.m. We jumped out of bed to find my father standing in the open front door, staring down the street. “Richard Nixon was just in my room,” he told me. “I’m trying to see where he went.”
Urinary tract infections are an insidious accompaniment to old age. They play cruel tricks on the brain. In my father’s case, they caused hallucinations. For the last year of his life, he almost always had a UTI.
Then he started to fall. As with a toddler, you can’t take your eyes off an elderly person who falls. I had to arrange for 24-hour care. To climb the stairs to the kitchen for dinner, he needed oxygen and someone behind him holding his belt. As he got weaker, he came upstairs less often.
With hot and cold running aides in the house, we had little privacy. Although we were grateful for the help, my work was disrupted constantly, my career derailed.
Then my father had a series of unusual and increasingly serious ailments. In the midst of each one, the hospice nurse gave me the prepare-yourself-for-the-end speech. Each time, he bounced back, reminding me of Art Buchwald checking himself out of hospice. The nurse finally gave up her speech after he recovered from a flesh-eating staph infection.
One Friday afternoon, my dad collapsed. He opened his eyes and assured us he was “OK.” Michael, the aides and I lifted him onto his bed. He took two deep breaths and was gone. He was 99½ years old. I felt deeply sad. I also felt relief. It had been a long haul.
I am neither a saint nor a martyr. I did not suffer in silence, and I did suffer. For all the difficulties of caregiving, it had enriched my life and made me a more patient, less selfish person. It had allowed me to set an example for my son. I left nothing on the table with parents with whom I had not always had an easy relationship. I would make the same choices all over again.
Regular NPR contributor Bonny Wolf is the author of Talking With My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes, and Other Kitchen Stories.
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