As an only child, I bargained with God to protect me from seeing my parents die. God ignored my fear-of-grief-based request although He gave me the grace of nearly two decades between the departure of them.
My father left us quickly. He had gone in for placement of a defibrillator pacemaker. I believe he lost interest in life when doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to repair lawnmowers because of the interference of the electromagnetic fields on the heart device. Repairing lawnmowers was a satisfying hobby for him because it was mechanical and practical.
My mother lived independently for many years after my father died and we were mutually supportive to each other. We took over mowing her yard and when I returned to work she took over caring for my first-born son who was only six months old when his grandfather died.
My father left us quickly, but my mother took her time. She lived with me and my family for the last two and a half years of her life. Daily, I was filled with anxious dread she’d fall and re-break her femur, which was the body part that ultimately stole her independence. She fell twice. The first time she broke her nose, blackened her eye and sprained her ankle. The second time was the precursor to her final days as she was just too weak to hold herself up anymore.
Fast forward two years after her death and I continue to process the profundity of having cared for my mother. I spontaneously completed an on-line survey for the Institute for Spirituality and Health, which is conducting research on personal quality and medical hardship and researchers followed up with a phone interview.
The Rice University college student probed what personal qualities I possessed which allowed me to persevere through my mother’s medical hardships. I inventory myself frequently for self-improvement but when pressed all I could identify as to how I managed to juggle all the demands on my time is “that’s what you do for a family.”
He queried about how society could better support people who are experiencing medical hardships. I didn’t delve into political divisions but spoke about the benefit to society when families are better supported in caring for any relative with a medical need. If women were paid for the informal caregiving they provide to relatives, it would conservatively be valued between $148 billion and $188 billion annually.
He asked me how I dealt with the disruption within my family when my mother lived with me. It wasn’t a disruption. It was a 180-degree change. Everything changed within and without for our family, including our living arrangement.
When women provide unpaid caregiving, they sacrifice about $40,000 in retirement savings because of the compromise they make for paid work. To accommodate my mother’s mobility needs, we moved from a 1,000-square foot home to a 3,000-square foot home and invested in handicap accessibility tools. I transferred my retirement savings into this family investment.
To supplement financially, some caregivers are fortunate to have a large network of extended family who can pitch in. As an only child, my extended family consisted of my husband and two sons. My husband worked to keep the roof over our heads, and my sons weren’t old enough to drive themselves, much less anyone else. So, any supplemental support we needed was a fee-based one, including for tasks as Good Samaritanish as giving my mother a ride to see her doctor.
Research and statistics indicate caregivers absorb an inordinate amount of stress and sacrifice. With the baby boom population aging at the speed of sound, more middle-aged children will be stepping into new roles. No matter a person’s inner stockpile of eagerness, loyalty, and love, caretaking is daunting. Many medical-specific organizations and caregiver-based groups offer in-person and on-line support groups. Both society and families benefit financially and emotionally when caregivers are supported.
Without stating it directly, he inquired as to the psychological toll on me. I reflected the personal story of the anonymous statistics and while my mother was living with me I didn’t have time to participate in emotionally satisfying functions. In the remote area in which I lived, it was difficult to access therapy but I reached out for on-line counseling, which was a competent substitute for a face-to-face therapeutic relationship.
Finally, he asked me how others responded when I told people I was caretaking for someone with a medical hardship. I gave him anecdotes of how medical staff laughed at my mother’s awkwardness with her walker and wheelchairs. Other people’s daughters who weren’t yet faced with this season would remark, “I could never live with my mother like you are.”
Pity on them, not me. I couldn’t really do it either, yet I did. And if life should demand this from you, you can, too. Because that’s what well-meaning families do.