I believe that there are many acceptable ways of taking care of your parents as they age and fall ill, that if you don’t move from the state in which you’ve made your home for 15 years and create a new home that includes your parents, you aren’t a bad person. My family is at a crossroads right now; we rewrite the definition of caregiving each day as our situations change. My father, suffering from middle-stage Alzheimer’s disease and congestive heart failure, entered a nursing home six months ago when he had a heart attack and experienced a significant physical decline. My mother, never having lived alone, finds it difficult to function in her suddenly empty two-bedroom apartment. When I call her, which I now do several times a week, she is peering through her curtains into the parking lot, visualizing all kinds of frightening things happening “out there” that will sneak up the stairs and harm her. I’ve been to her home many times, and there is nothing dangerous out there. It is a quiet, gated community in a beautiful part of Florida.
“It’s ok,” I tell her, “your imagination is running away with you.” Perhaps this is one of the childlike aspects of getting old, reacquainting oneself with the world of fantasy and dreams, no matter how dark.
My three siblings and I are far away–two are in Michigan and I’m in California. The one sister who is close enough to take my parents into her home is the one who could never live with them. (And they wouldn’t live with her.) It is ironic, given this silent discord, that she is the one who has helped them the most. She navigated the Medicaid maze and got my Dad into a highly regarded care center, near my mother, with an excellent and compassionate staff. He is happy there, he says, except that my mother isn’t with him. Each day, he packs his bags and sits on the side of his bed with my mother’s photo in hand, claiming that the doctor has discharged him, and that she can take him home. The nurses smile over his devotion to my mother, and I think, if I moved to Florida and got a house for us all, they could be together again.
But I believe we must know our limitations, and that we must set our own standards for what we think is the right thing to do. I believe that, by calling and visiting often, researching and providing solutions to problems, and offering an ear—and a shoulder, when I am there—I am caring for my parents. Sometimes I feel that, by living 2500 miles away, I am not doing enough, and that I should leave the life I’ve created here and move closer. But honestly: I see that as an act of self-destruction, and I believe that the best definition of caregiving would never exclude the Self.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.