En español | Mom and Dad are thriving now. They've moved into an assisted-living facility, but the sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment in Washington state is a big change from their 3,000-square-foot home in Palo Alto, California. It was the lure of living near their younger son, Jaime, that convinced them to move. My brother now visits every night, and they go to church with him and his two children every Sunday.
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When I call Mom these days, she sounds happy and rested. At 76, she's the youngest and, besides my Dad, who's 80, the only Hispanic resident at the complex. I have to ask to speak to Dad or she commands the phone the entire time.
They have some bad days, but fewer than when she and Dad were living alone. Still, things weren't always so calm. Finding a safe place for them to live was an emotion-filled experience for my three siblings and me. We still face challenges, but I suspect they'll be easier than those we've already overcome since the journey began two years ago.
"Where can I get a pill that will end it all?" Mom asks during a phone conversation. She seems to be crumbling before us, turning from extremely active and confident to frightened and needy. Dad has Parkinson's disease now, making things even tougher on Mom.
The truth is, Mom and Dad are becoming old and feeble sooner than we expected. They seem to have lost their will to be happy, too. Neither is eating well, and each moves in and out of depression.
For us, Mom's always been the strong one, the woman who moved to the United States from El Salvador with four kids, navigated the school system, and settled in a middle-class neighborhood. Now she's forgetting to pay the bills and take her medication.
Our family is close and emotional, but talking about difficult issues is hard. So now that our parents can no longer take care of themselves, we siblings are skidding around the issue, avoiding the search for solutions. How can we make plans if we can't discuss housing, finances, and medical care?
My sister, Mae, takes Mom out almost daily and brings Dad the food he loves, like Salvadoran pupusas and tacos. My brother José stops for lunch almost every day. Mom's more active than Dad, who now seems to be having trouble getting around their four-bedroom house.
Distance has become a bone of contention. I'm in New York and visit only two or three times a year. Jaime and his family live in Seattle and visit twice a year. Mae and José are the ones called when the dishwasher breaks, when the dog needs a bath, and when Dad trips and falls. With a toddler at home, Mae is strapped for time and José lives 40 minutes away. They're trying to cope. When she and Mae fight, Mom calls me to complain.
We all try to come to terms with the future. Jaime doesn't think our parents need to move. Mae, who has worked in health management and heard horror stories about homecare attendants, favors a seniors' facility. Mom, the family decision-maker, shoos away that option by saying, "I'll never sell the house." They had saved every penny to buy it and feel middle-class.
Getting there wasn't easy. Back in El Salvador, Mom had quit her job as an accountant when Mae, the youngest, was born. Then Dad lost his job. A former accountant and car salesman, he heard bakers were needed in the United States and asked a friend who owned a bakery to teach him the trade. Then we all moved to California, Mom and Dad leaving their extended families behind.
Within a year, Dad was working as a French chef—Dad, who had never even cooked an egg! We failed to understand his sacrifice, but we still rave about his French toast. Here we were, an immigrant family, eating escargot and coq au vin.
Life in the United States was normal until Dad retired and Mom, then 65, was laid off.
Things are falling apart. Dad fails his driver's test. For a while he drives without a license. Mom tells us, and we have a talk with him. He's upset. The United States won't give him a break now that he's old, he says. He doesn't understand it's the law. Then Mom flunks the driver's test, too. Both refuse to retake it; they're embarrassed.
Dad has his gall bladder removed and, after weeks in the hospital, is sent to a nursing facility. Dad loses the use of his legs, and I'm outraged that all the Latinos and other ethnic patients are placed in back rooms. We plan to move him out as soon as possible. With each day at the nursing home, Dad's spirit is shriveling along with his body. Jaime and I visit several assisted-living centers.
To introduce the issue, we hold a family meeting. Mom cries and tells us she has "criado cuervos para que le comieran los ojos" (raised crows that are gouging out her eyes).
Finally, my brother-in-law suggests hiring a lawyer who speaks Spanish and knows about elders and retirement. Mom meets with the attorney and walks out of the meeting a different person. She agrees to finalize their wills and think about assisted living.
We look for a place where Mom and Dad can be together, a place that is affordable, safe, and culturally sensitive. Then Jaime finds the safe haven where they now live. It's right around the corner from his home. We're all relieved.