Taking care of Mom

One my Facebook contacts posted this Atlantic link today and it made me think about everything sister and I are doing to take care of Mom.

At 75, Mom now has a lot of health issues (diabetes, arthritis, and hypertension, among others) but the one condition that truly concerns us is her dementia. Because her short term memory is not very good she can’t remember to take her medications, refill prescriptions, and keep track of healthcare appointments.

The neurologist she’s been seeing has said there isn’t much that can be done about the dementia, although she did have Mom try some medications to halt its progression. Neither one agreed with her. One caused severe nausea, and the other made her “spaced out” according to stepfather, so it was stopped, too.

Mom’s husband is functionally illiterate. He runs a small business with the help of his son, and it is their main source of income. His business is offsite, so he has to leave their house at least five days a week to keep things running.

Stepfather told sister and I he could not deal with Mom by himself, so we stepped in to help. Sister and I had to deal with the following problems for my Mom.

  • Stepfather can’t keep up with her prescriptions, either, because he can’t read the bottles.
  • Stepfather admitted he can’t understand what Mom’s health care professionals tell him.
  • The income from stepfather’s business is keeping them ahead of their bill payments, but not by much. In past years he would routinely use credit card cash advances and home equity to get capital, and he is likely still doing that.
  • Mom’s social security income is minimal; she didn’t have a lot contributed to start with, plus she took an early distribution at 62.
  • About 10 years ago they moved to a rural property in the far corner of their county because stepfather wanted to move. Mom moved far away from her friends and social network, and since they are more remote she wasn’t able to build new ones. Social services are very scarce in their area.

Between the two of us, sister and I organized Mom’s meds and health care records. Now that doctor’s offices have to provide patient portals online, it’s easier for us to keep track of her appointments, medication changes, and tests, too. Sister and I also share notes and information through a shared Evernote notebook.

We did some research and found a private day program at a senior care community 10 miles from her house. Mom loves it, and she gets social interaction, meals and snacks, and also medication supervision while she’s there. We also researched transportation options, since Mom can no longer drive herself anywhere.

For the past six months my budget has included an average of $300 a month for “Mom care,” which is my half of the expense to send Mom to the senior day program twice a week. Yes, I said “half” the expense, since sister and I are splitting this expense between the two of us. Stepfather — her husband — doesn’t seem able to help out with this expense at all. Honestly, neither sister nor I have asked him to kick in any money, although I have thought about it and mentioned it to sister.

I know that sister thinks I would be an ungrateful child if I didn’t continue to kick in 50% of the cost of this senior day care for Mom. Maybe I am being ungrateful, but I think about how that money could go to my savings for buying a house, taking a vacation, or getting back into horseback riding. I don’t think that’s horrible or selfish, either. Mom is married, after all, and it would seem to make sense to me that her husband pay something towards her expenses.

And if you don’t read that Atlantic article in full, at least reflect on the title: The Crisis Facing America’s Working Daughters. Not sons, daughters. ‘Cause women are always expected to step up and do the care-taking in families. We’re supposed to set aside personal ambitions and desires so we can nurture children and elderly relatives, no matter what. Stepfather said “You girls need to help your Ma,” and that’s how this all started.

I’m not trying to make this a rant against stepfather. Nor am I trying to rant against sister, who turned to stone when I mentioned to her a few weeks ago that I may just need to stop kicking in so much money every month so I can save a bit more towards my personal goals.

There’s no question that sister is on the hook for more direct care of Mom these days since I now live 2,000+ miles away. Sister takes time off work to shuttle Mom to healthcare appointments most of the time. Having someone who can ask questions and advocate for Mom with her healthcare professionals is critical for her care, and stepfather made it clear he could not do so.

It just really, really sucks that as women we are expected to compromise our lives, to our potential detriment.

This is why I save so diligently in my retirement accounts. This is why I have Long Term Care Insurance. This is why I am trying to put together enough money to buy a little cottage where I can live until I’m carried out feet first.

I’m not going to rely on anyone else. I can’t.

Mother’s Day

It would be wrong to say I hate Mother’s Day, but it’s a day that I struggle with nearly every year. My relationship with my mom has never been close, and I feel resentful that I am forced to confront this every year and try to meet some societal standard for showing mom how grateful I am that she gave birth to me and raised me.

I didn’t plan to write about Mother’s Day or my mom, but after I got up this morning and followed my usual routine of catching up on my online life while having coffee, I ran across Donna Freedman’s blog post about her relationship with her mom and her regrets. I’m not feeling regret like Donna and my mom is still around, but it is a deeply moving piece to read because it is not the usual hearts and flowers stuff that is written about Mother’s Day. It is real and raw and evocative of how complex family relationships usually are.

I’m not as good at writing as Donna, but I really just wanted to get this out today. Before reading Donna’s post, I called my mom to wish her happy Mother’s Day. Even though I live less than a two-hour drive from here, that was all I could manage this year.

My current difficulties facing mom started a couple of months ago when she called me and left a vague voicemail message saying she was out-of-town, but would I please call her back. When I finally got her on the line, she told me she had fallen the day before while with her husband and stepdaughter visiting some family, and that her leg and foot were swollen, bruised, and that it hurt to walk. I asked her if she had gone to a doctor. No, she said, her husband had refused to take her. She then said was alone in the hotel room at that time, which is the only reason she felt she could call because she didn’t want to upset my stepfather telling me this.

Now, I was 22 and living independently when my mother re-married, so I did not spend any time being supported by my stepfather. I have gotten to know him pretty well over the past 20+ years, though, and he is not a monster. I called mom’s bluff and told her that if she told her husband that she really wanted to see a doctor, he would take her. Or, if she didn’t feel like bothering him with her problem, she could call a cab to take her to urgent care or an ambulance to take her to the ER. I can’t know exactly how the conversation went after she fell, but she did say that there was some talk of calling an ambulance and/or take her to the hospital, but at the time she didn’t feel it was necessary.

Yet, here I was on the phone with her talking about this because she had called me to tell me about her pain. Right. I’m over 700 miles away from her location at the time of her phone call, and personally unable to do anything to help her, yet she calls me to tell me how much she hurts and how she can’t walk and must simply lay in the hotel room all by herself while her husband is swimming with his daughter and grandchildren.

The thing is, this type of behavior is normal for my mom. She creates situations of high drama where she will get the maximum amount of attention. This goes beyond the standard claims of people who say their mother is a martyr, making great sacrifices for the family and making sure everyone knows that.

Growing up, I learned to distance myself as much as possible from my mom — both physically and emotionally — because scary things happened when she got into high drama mode. I was spared the full brunt of her antics for many years because of my ability to hide in plain sight, and because my older sister got the most of her craziness. But by the time I reached high school age, my older sister wasn’t around as much and I was starting to get pulled into her antics.

There was the time I was miserable and sulky about something, and my mother — who was driving me to or from somewhere — said she’d had enough of life, too, and she would just drive us off the highway and into the quarry we were currently crossing over. This was her way of making me shut up about whatever was bothering me and causing me to be difficult. There was no doubt in my mind that she would do it, either, because I knew she was mentally unstable. I had to beg and cry and practically lunge for the steering wheel myself to make her stop feinting towards the edge of the road.

Then there was the time she offered me a handful of pills to take my own life, as she swallowed a bunch herself. I was alone with her in the house because my father and sister were out-of-state at a family party. I had been sent home in disgrace with my mother for doing something stupid, and was grounded and confined to the house. I didn’t think it could get any worse for me, being confined to the house with just my mom for company, but mom showed me that it certainly could get worse. I called 911 after mom swallowed the pills and told them that we needed an ambulance, but my mother calmly phoned them back and said she was sorry she had caught her daughter making a prank call. I ran out of the house to the neighbor’s next door, told them what had happened, and begged to use their phone. I’ll never forget the neighbor lady saying to her husband, “Oh, not again.”

As it ended up, my mother refused to get into the ambulance that showed up. She insisted that she’d rather have her daughter take her to urgent care where our insurance would cover her treatment and made the ambulance leave. Never mind that my father and sister had the family car and the only car available was a used Buick my dad had recently purchased for use when I finally got my driver’s license. Which is how I — a frightened, unlicensed, 15-year old driver of an unlicensed car — ended up taking my mother to get treated for over-dosing on prescription meds. We actually never made it to the urgent care clinic. Along the way, she grumbled about how upset my father would be to receive the ambulance bill, and then insisted I pull over in an out of the way place where she would make herself vomit. She said she knew they would stick a tube down her throat to pump her stomach and she didn’t want to go through that again.

Again. That word came up a lot when I was growing up. Oh, mom was in a mood again.

Once I got a driver’s license, I used it to be away from home as much as possible. There was high school and a job and doing things with friends. My sister finished high school and moved out to college. A year later my father left and filed for divorce. I was alone in the house with my mom. Again. (I was also very angry with my father for leaving me with this crazy person. And that’s exactly what I told him.)

Mom tried to manipulate me in her dramatic way one more time that stands out in my memory. She woke me up in the wee hours one night crying and carrying on that she was going to kill herself. I rolled over and told her to just go ahead and do it, but to let me go back to sleep because I had school and work the next day. Around this time mom was finally seeing a therapist, a woman who asked her to bring me in one day so to meet with her so she could talk to me about how I was dealing with the separation and imminent divorce of my parents. I told the therapist about this encounter where my mother woke me up to threaten suicide. Again. I thought the therapist would have some harsh words for me, but she didn’t. She told me it was fine that I had done that.

I know mom had a difficult childhood. She has readily talked of the emotional abuse she received at home and the physical abuse she witnessed. Of how she left home at 16, eloping with my father so she could escape all that. Despite the fact that I only knew my maternal grandfather to be a loving and caring man, I’m sure she wasn’t making up stories. I realize it is possible for people to have many sides to their personalities and to have different behaviors with different people. And that often people change over time.

I recognize that my mom did her best to raise me, and that she and my father actually did a pretty good job. Both my sister and I are strong, capable, and independent women. We have successful careers and are good members of our community. Yet my sister married alcoholics, twice. She is active in two 12-step programs, which have helped her immensely over the years. And I feel like an emotional cripple.

At some point growing up, I began to think of my mother as a vampire who wanted to suck out my emotions and my life. I want so much to feel loved, but I am wary of giving too much of myself. After suffering from panic attacks over 15 years ago, I sought therapy and have done very well. I have enough emotional strength and intelligence to take care of myself, but when there is another person to take into consideration I am shaky. I’m terribly afraid of feeling subsumed. Again. It’s easier to hold myself back.

The situation with my mom calling me from out-of-town to get my attention about her fall just sapped me. It broke me down. I didn’t get angry or start crying, but I did ask her: Why was she telling me this? What did she expect me to do? Besides telling her that she needed to communicate clearly to her husband that she wanted to see a doctor, I looked up the closest urgent care centers to her hotel and gave her the phone numbers and street addresses. Then I got off the phone with her as soon as I could.

I messaged my sister, with whom I’m finally starting to have a good relationship. And she gave me the comfort that she could. “What do you expect from mom? She’s a crazy person. You know that. Don’t let her get to you.” Indeed.

So, really the best I could muster for today was to call my mom and wish her happy Mother’s Day. And to tell her that I love her. Because I do love her. Goddess help me, but I do.