I live on the East Coast and my parents live on the West Coast, in a rural setting. They have been together for more than 60 years and have always been self-sufficient-- priding themselves on doing things their way. After all, they are children of the Great Depression who have always done what’s necessary to make their lives work. My two brothers live closer to my parents, but they are both several hours away.
A few years ago, my mother—who had already survived colon cancer—was diagnosed with a Parkinson’s-like neurological disorder. Slowly she has lost the ability to walk and care for herself. These days—at age 89— her ability to speak and swallow is also impaired. She remains, however, mentally alert and engaged.
Being so far away from my parents has been troubling. I felt increasingly anxious as my mother began to have falls in the house. As the one unmarried son, I felt particular guilt about being so far away from them and unable to help them with their day-to-day lives. My mother and I have always been close, but my relationship with my father has been complicated. He has always been a strong patriarchal figure—in charge, stubborn and short-tempered. And, as he has aged, he has also become a major procrastinator, wary of change.
As my mother’s health continued to fail, my brothers and I became certain that additional care was needed. My father at first refused help, even from members of the church community who wanted to offer assistance. My brothers and I kept pressing for change but it became clear that we had to dance around my father’s ego. I have friends who encouraged me to sweep in, lay down the law, and demand that things be done differently—something not in my nature. On occasion I did lose my temper with my father. During my visits, I witnessed him becoming increasingly impatient and cranky with Mom, and it drove me nuts. But exploding at him only worsened the situation.
Fortunately, my brothers and I are close and have been able to work as a team to prompt some gradual change. Eventually my father hired someone to come help with my mother three days a week. That later increased to five days, and now someone is there seven days a week, although no one is with them at night when my father must help my mother use the commode.
My brothers and I have worked out a system by which we take regular turns communicating with my parents by phone at several points during the week. We—along with my adult niece—time our visits so that not too much time elapses without Mom and Dad seeing one of us. We have also kept in touch with representatives of the care-giving establishment and with my parents’ neighbors, who have been very supportive and loyal.
I cannot say that everything is perfect. But my parents have made changes that have allowed them to stay in the home they have shared for six-plus decades. And my relationships with my brothers and my niece have grown stronger because we have faced this challenge together. There are difficult days yet to come, but I am extremely grateful that the four of us are there for one another.