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A Summer Vacation Caregiver

Learning how to care for my aging mother, while still nurturing myself

Lee Woodruff and her mother


En español | For the past three summers, my mother has lived with my family in our Adirondack cottage, surrounded by her three daughters and nine grandchildren. It’s the place where I grew up every summer, with a free-range childhood that resonates with those of us called home by a dinner bell, long before cell phones and GPS trackers. We explored trails for hours, canoed, swam and practiced diving off the raft as we tanned on bleached docks, baby-oil-slicked and lemon juice in our hair.

My children are the fifth generation to return to this little bay on a lake with their cousins in their own nearby cottages. The jewel in the family crown was my parents’ house, a 100-year-old, bark-sided beauty with a giant stone fireplace from a different era. But at 84, widowed and slowing down, the last straw for my mother was an errant bat in the bedroom at midnight. The next day she announced that she no longer felt up to living there alone. And so she moved in with us.

My mother embodies the term “sweet lady.” She is an avid reader, a great conversationalist, is still able-bodied and values her independence above all. She is happy to be observing the loud, loving and colorful world of her grandchildren as they orbit the house, and is determined not to be an inconvenience to anyone.

And yet — living with my mother, having her under my roof and becoming her caregiver, was a giant adjustment. I was unprepared for the accommodation in my headspace, the way a third eye suddenly bloomed to track and anticipate her needs, to worry about her well-being and whereabouts. This seems silly to acknowledge as someone who has raised four children while working and running a household. What could be so difficult about adding another adult to the home for a six-week period? But it was. 

Looking back, last summer had been harder than I’d wanted to admit. I’d limped up to the mountains at the end of June after a brutal year of work travel, welcomed my mother to the guest room, physically moved houses at home, celebrated 30 years of marriage and sent twin daughters off to their first year in college as I faced the empty nest. By September, mentally exhausted, I slipped into a low-level depression. 

What was wrong with me? Why was I so grumpy and resentful? My mother had selflessly sacrificed her life to raise three girls, cheering from the sidelines at every chapter of our lives.  Why was I unable to repeatedly and joyfully return the love in the twilight years of her life?

Lee Woodruff


Lee Woodruff

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It eventually dawned on me that I hadn’t let myself relax all summer. Every small moment I could have used to hear myself think, there was my sweet mother. She had a question about the dishwasher, needed help locating the table settings, had burned a pan cooking rice, wanted to remind me of her food allergies or the constitution of her bowels. I worked to keep my tone even as I sat with her night after night, watching historical fiction shows on PBS and Netflix, cue the gratuitous sex scenes.

I boxed myself out of dinner invitations and dates for drinks with friends; declined nighttime boat rides or a chance to see the July 4th fireworks. I’d play the martyr. This  was my mother, after all, and she was in my home. I never wanted her to feel like an inconvenience.

For those of us who’ve raised kids and envisioned kicking back in the summer sand but instead find ourselves managing aging parents, these are very human and familiar feelings.  Giving in to them, owning the moments of being overwhelmed or feeling exasperated at explaining how the microwave worked one more time was the escape valve I needed. Discussing them with friends and my sisters, working out a plan for some “nights off,” and acknowledging that there is no sainthood here on earth helped immensely. “What you’re doing is hard,” one of my friends said. “But you’re modeling something for your own children about love and devotion.”

“I wish my mother was still around so I could get grumpy at her,” another friend opined. That sobering statement helped me forge a mantra that I use in the caregiving moments when I feel exasperated. I don’t “have” to have my mother live with me. I “get” to have my mother stay with me.

Still, I am determined to approach this year’s vacation differently. The trick is to figure out how I can give my mother a wonderful summer while nurturing and recharging myself. To get some insight, I reached out to a friend, Colleen Whitt Bell, who has spent 30 years as a palliative care and hospice nurse.

“Most caregivers have a high ‘helper tolerance,’ but when small things start to seem large and bothersome, that’s the first sign you might need outside assistance,” explains Bell. “Inability to sleep, short temper, difficulty concentrating or feeling overwhelmed are also signs.” To help manage the stress, Bell advises to keep these tips in mind:

  • A little physical exercise each day can change your outlook and fatigue level.
  • You can “trade time” with a friend. Ask them if they are willing to come sit or be with your loved one and if you can get out and run some errands for them, or pay the favor back another way to take a breather. Even though caregivers don’t like to ask for help, just a few hours can be a giant battery recharge.
  •  Make sure to look into local resources or investigate the local aging groups and agencies for their options — or even “day club/care” drop-offs — to find a few hours for yourself.
  • Focus on one “mini-treat” you enjoy in your day, whether it’s a cup of coffee in the morning or a puzzle you can work on even for 30 minutes to establish your own bracket of time for yourself.

My mother will not always be in my kitchen, I remind myself. None of us knows how many more nights she will be able to gather here at the lip of this gorgeous lake with the ones she loves. And I will miss that mighty hug. I will miss her wide smile and the pure joy that radiates from her tiny, bird-boned body as she wraps her arms around me with the full force of a mother’s love.   

So, caregiver friends, tell me: What do you do to nurture yourself while caring for others?

Lee Woodruff is a caregiver, speaker and the author of three books, including the best-seller, In an Instant. She and her husband, Bob, are cofounders of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists injured service members and their families. Follow her on Twitter @LeeMWoodruff and Instagram @leewoodruff.

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