By Donald Rodrigue
It’s always difficult for a child to watch an elderly parent gradually lose his or her independence, but it‘s even more difficult to look after them from a distance.
For the past several years, my wife Gloria and I have watched the steady decline of my parents, Joe and Betty Rodrigue of St. Cloud, Fla., a small community about 20 minutes south of Orlando. We live on the Treasure Coast, about two hours to the southeast. My father, 87, suffers from Parkinston’s Disease and dementia, while my mother, 80, is his primary caregiver. My father gradually lost his ability to walk unassisted and take care of his own needs after a severe fall in the summer of 2010.
My mother refuses to institutionalize him and is fortunate to have my grown sister Patricia living with them. My mother’s caregiving efforts are augmented by the assistance of home health aides who come in for a few hours a day while Patricia works full time at a nearby Wal-Mart. Even with help, watching over my parents from a distance is very stressful. My wife Gloria and I have seen my mother age over the last several years as she struggles with the emotional and physical challenges of caring for her husband of almost 60 years.
In order to be closer to them, we moved to Port St. Lucie from Miami in 2007. Now it’s even feasible to go up and come back in the same day, which has been necessary a few times.
My mother’s increasing insecurity of being left alone with my father is also becoming a matter of concern. She can no longer get him off the floor if he falls. And she has frequently had to call 911 or a neighbor to help get him up. Now whenever I am visiting on the weekends, my mother will usually beg me to stay longer to avoid being without help. She frequently asks me to come earlier than planned as well.
About a year ago, my mother fell while outside tending her garden. She hurt her ankle so bad that she was unable to put any pressure on it. Needless to say, her getting my father out of bed or a chair became almost impossible. I had to change my plans and make an unexpected trip that weekend in order to help out.
I found it essential to have the telephone number of at least one neighbor. One weekend a while back I could never get anyone to answer the phone at their home. I was at the point of making the drive when I remembered to call the neighbor, who graciously agreed to check on them for me.
Early on in her caregiving, I was able to help them with some much-needed home repairs from a distance, however. Through their local Council on Aging, I discovered they qualified for some free home weatherization. Within a couple of weeks, work crews had installed new solar window screens, water-saving bath fixtures, a digital control for their central air unit and a new, energy-saving water heater, all at no cost.
Long distance caregiving has failed me in at least one financial situation, however. About a year ago, my father’s life insurance company decided to more than double the monthly premiums on his whole life policy due to his advanced age. My mother said she was working to resolve the issue but could not afford the difference in the payment. I failed to keep up with the matter and only recently found out they had completely lost the policy he’d been paying on for 20 years. Now, as my father enters the twilight of his life, I realize he has neither life or burial insurance to help cover his final expenses. Perhaps had we been living closer to my parents, this outcome might have been different.