I am one of more than ten million Americans who are caring for their elderly parents. Though the physical decline and dependency of aging is inevitable, the journey for children and parents is never really planned. It arises from duty and love, and it’s full of surprises.
I am one of five boys in a Presbyterian minister’s family, to which everyone would always exclaim, “your poor mother!” How Dad did it on a meager pastor’s salary is astonishing in itself. We were an active family—hiking, camping and exploring every corner of the Northwest. Besides the church calling, which was paramount, Dad always had a new hobby or interest. We boys were encouraged in school, work, music and civics. But church always came first. Mom was always “full time” as a mother and pastor’s wife, but in her 40s went to college and became a nurse. I often think of Mom and Dad as among that great generation of Super 8-packing Pacific Northwesterners who dug razor clams, rode ferries and did the Wonderland Trail, all before any of that was cool.
What I think about now is that we don’t have a lot of time left to be together. And at a time when my parents need me I wonder, where am I going to find even more time?
Mom and Dad moved to a retirement community in Federal Way five years ago, a half an hour away from me. Mom didn't have to cook as much, and Dad finally gave up driving. The social community was good for them.
Like most folks in their nineties, they have issues—hearing and memory loss, and some medical problems. But things went well until last year, when it was obvious that they needed a higher level of care. Mom couldn’t keep her medications straight, causing other problems. It was time for them to move from independent to assisted living. Dad refused, even though it was in the same complex. "No more change," he said.
And then came the fall.
We—my brothers and I—knew that one of them would probably fall at some point. It is the number-one job, after a certain age, to stay upright. We always thought it would be Mom falling and breaking her hip, since she had become more and more unsteady. But it was Dad who fell.
"He was in the kitchen making breakfast as he always did," says Mom. "And all of a sudden I heard him screaming louder than anything." And he didn't stop. She can’t forget his screams.
The fall changed everything. Dad had broken his 92-year old leg—his femur. The repair was difficult, screwing and lashing his brittle bones together, hoping for the best.
So for the first time in 72 years, Mom and Dad were apart. While Dad was in the hospital, we moved Mom to assisted living. We tried to make the new apartment as similar as possible to the old one. Everybody came together then to get Mom settled after so much change and trauma. My brothers and their spouses, though some live far away, all pitched in. This was a different ball game. We're lucky—we all get along. I can't imagine being able to do it by yourself, or how a family that has differences or dysfunction comes together as a team. Keith, Mark and Phil came across state and country to spend time with Mom, sleeping on an air mattress in the tiny living room.
My oldest brother Ted, a retired physician, lives two hours away. He's able to help with the big decisions—the medical management, and he manages their bills.
"I realize that we're really in a different culture. Many cultures, they just assume that you're going to take care of their parents in their home until they die. That's what they do," says Ted. "Our culture, we've gotten away from that, for better or worse. We make plans for the future not counting on that we're going to take care of our parents forever.”
I ask Ted how he deals with the conflict of caring from Mom and Dad. He says, “The biggest problem is we never know what’s going to happen next." More of the events seem to be kind of emergent—either Mom thinks there is an emergency, or there really is an emergency; Dad falls or somebody falls.”
"I'm the only one of us boys that is retired—I'm the only one who really has time to do it," says Ted. "But, like everyone whose parents need care, you think, how long is this going to need to go on?
After surgery and an all-too-short hospital stay, Dad was moved to a convalescent home. The first night, he was on a mattress on the floor. They were afraid he’d roll out of bed and mess up his leg. He looked so alone and scared. And for the first few weeks, he was really out of it: very confused, delirious. Every time we’d visit he was convinced we were there to take him home. He’d get frustrated and angry, when we left telling him that he had to stay. He just wanted to go home. I thought, this was the beginning of the end. He wasn’t going to walk again. He wasn’t going to make it out of there. A doubt shared by even his doctors.
But slowly, recovery began. Dad is the most determined person I know. He'd call it faith; working at something and ignoring your own doubt.
His Bible was never far away from his eyes. He started doing puzzles and crosswords. He'd wheel around the wing visiting, praying with other patients, most of whom were silent with Alzheimer's. And every week, he was a little clearer, a little stronger.
Rare was the day when Mom didn't go to visit Dad. It's just the latest chapter in a long, devoted routine. It’s so touching to see them kiss, and hug. On Valentine’s Day, Mom and I walked into his room to see him decked out in a red vest and a red tie complete with hearts. Where he got the clothes I have no idea.
“I’ve been waiting for you! It’s Valentine’s Day!” he beamed. Cute.
This time together is always touching and important for all of us. I want Dad to feel connected, and in control of his life. But the communication has been difficult. We tend to have the same conversations over and over. But I love seeing Dad, and thinking I can brighten his day.
It's hard to see my parents struggle with the simple. I have to remember to respect their independence. I often feel as if I'm hovering like an overanxious parent. I am not their parent, and they are not children. But the feeling, the sense of duty is the same. Caring for them at this time in our lives stirs up feelings, and all my brothers and I feel a mix of emotions.
"I just think, I'm 70 years old and they are just 22, 23 years older than me. And the last 20 years have gone by so fast," says Ted. "I start realizing my own mortality—and a fear of decrepitude."
After months of work, the day finally came. Dad's fortitude—the same stubbornness that frustrates me as a son—gets him on his feet. It was the first time he's been able to put full weight on his leg, the first test in seeing if the bone is solid. Glenn, the physical therapist, puts Dad through a series of posture and mobility exercises. Dad just takes off. I feel the pride of a father watching his kid master a bicycle. It has been such a long road; he just wants it so badly.
I have gotten close to Mom in the last few months, as we've had a lot of time together. She is the most gracious person I have ever known. At the retirement community, they call her the laughing lady—she's always in a cheery mood. But she's been lonely without Dad. I realize that caregiving is also the simple act of companionship, of just being there. We worry about her. Her cognitive, processing abilities have declined. She has problems with language, with finding her words, especially later in the day.
"She called me [before] and was very panicky, not knowing what day it was and it just felt like everything was wrong, and I did have a hard time drawing it out," says Ted. "She did come out with a sentence: 'I just need someone to lean on, I guess. A shoulder to lean on.'"
In late March, at last, Dad gets to come home. There’s a welcoming party at the retirement home, and his excited great-grandkids Maddy and Katie have hung a cheery banner. He walks into the apartment and to his big chair next to Mom’s big chair as if none of this had ever happened.
But things are different. This is a new place, with new people, and though he'd not admit it, he has new needs. He's forgotten a lot. And Mom too has changed in the last four months. She’s less able to help.
We hope that Dad's daily companionship will lift Mom's spirits, and that resuming a daily routine together will help them both. I guess it’s hard to argue with the success of their previous 72 years together.
Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming. His credits include PIE, Something in the Water (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase. Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.More stories by Stephen Hegg