Eldercare: Surviving The Communication Minefield

For years, I saved articles on how to determine whether an elderly person needs more help or a change of living situation. But when the time came to intervene with my own mother -- widowed and living alone -- I was utterly unprepared for the emotions that flared and the strain it put on our warm relationship.

In her youth, Mom had been a Little-Engine-That-Could kind of woman who'd raised seven children and believed any problem could be solved with enough elbow grease. In her late 80s, she was still remarkably healthy. She followed the arts and politics, read two newspapers a day, was up on world events, and tended a thriving garden.

Then, shortly before her 89th birthday, we noticed some worrisome changes. Mom complained "All my electronics stopped working at once." She claimed that the tuner/radio/tape/CD player she'd been using for decades was broken -- but she'd simply pushed the wrong button. She was suddenly unable to launch Word to compose and send a printed letter, something she'd done for years.

Most worrisome was her driving. Her beloved Honda had dings all around its perimeter. My terrified niece reported that Mom had driven more than a mile through a series of turn lanes on a major arterial. My brother persuaded Mom to stop driving. But she was depressed and furious, telling people "She took my car." I hadn't. It was still in her garage and the keys were in her purse. Her doctor prescribed an antidepressant.

Mom continued living in her townhouse, making jam for the food bank, taking her daily one-mile walk, and -- ever the good citizen -- picking up litter along the way. My sister, niece, and I took her grocery shopping, to appointments, lunch, and family gatherings.

We thought we had it handled. But then Mom suffered a series of falls -- hitting her head after plummeting out of bed during a nightmare, toppling backward down the stairs while cleaning a spot on the carpet, crashing bottom-first onto the cement patio while raking. She never admitted falling until we noticed her bruises or shuffling gait.

When Mom ended up in the emergency room last summer complaining of excruciating neck pain, I rushed to the hospital and found her drowsy from pain medication, her neck engulfed in a large brace. Diagnosis: a partially healed fracture of her C1 vertebra, likely broken when she fell out of bed.

It was clear she shouldn't be alone. I took her to my house and set her up in a bedroom on the main floor to minimize the risk of another fall. Breaking her hip or re-injuring her neck would be a one-way ticket to a nursing home.

Mom was supposed to wear the neck brace 24/7 for eight weeks, but it was awkward to sleep in and aggravated her lifelong claustrophobia. When pain woke her at night, she'd shuffle to my room and ask if it was time for a pill. She had nightmares, yelling in her sleep and jolting me awake.

I struggled to fulfill my work obligations, taking sick time, and then working at home. Finally, I arranged for a companion to stay with Mom during the day. Mom protested, but she'd been telling people who called that she was "depressed as hell." I didn't want to leave her alone.

She wanted desperately to go home, so we gave it a try. One of my sisters came from out of town and stayed with Mom for several days. She saw how mail, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and other papers had piled up on surface after surface. She discovered the myriad solicitations from charities and the many checks Mom sent in reply.

Back at our house, Mom fell again -- in her bedroom, then down the stairs -- both times without the neck brace. It was time to find her a safer place to live.

When I suggested we tour the senior living community where Mom's friend had moved, I stumbled into what Joy Loverde, author of The Complete Eldercare Planner, calls a "communication minefield." I expected my mother to be the reasonable woman I knew. Instead, she turned into someone I didn't recognize -- petulant and vindictive -- but only to me, her eldest daughter.

I was just trying to take care of her. But, even at 90, she wasn't ready to be a "senior."

My sister and I took her on a tour of a senior community near my sister's home and my work, with spacious apartments and amenities befitting a luxury hotel. Mom paid a deposit, but was dead set against moving in. Anytime I mentioned it, she recoiled as if I'd stabbed her in the heart.

It's hard to admit that caring for an angry, resentful elderly parent sucks the joy out of life. But the stress got so bad that, driving home from work at night, I'd grow more depressed the closer I got to home. I was often tempted to keep on driving.

Had I known about Loverde's book or Coping with Your Difficult Older Parent: A Guide for Stressed-Out Children by Grace Lebow and Barbara Kane, with Irwin Lebow, I might have taken Mom's fury less personally. I might have been more diplomatic--saying, "I'm sorry you feel that way" when she told me what a disappointment I was, instead of flashing her my two middle fingers.

Recently, Mom apologized, saying "I acted like a spoiled brat last summer." She described sitting with a group of women in the dining room shortly after she moved to senior living. When she mentioned how angry she was at me for betraying her, one woman said simply, "We all blamed our daughters."

There's no easy way to deal with an elderly parent who resists a needed transition. But it helps to know that almost everyone who takes on this responsibility rides the same sort of emotional roller coaster and that sooner or later your parent will adjust. And you will, too.

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