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Graceful Aging: No Such Thing

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The smell was acrid, toxic and disgusting. As my sister and I made our way down the steps to our mother's house, she offered us some freshly baked muffins. "No thanks, Mom, but what is that smell?"

"Oh, it's probably rat piss. They've been living under my oven." I never thought I'd see the day when my own mother would be living in a rat-filled, trash-strewn house.

I normally write about women in business. But very often, women's business also includes taking care of family, and especially those family members who are unable to take care of their own business. And as part of the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, I suspect that others are facing some of these same issues. The fabled work-life balance goes out the window in times of crisis.

My recent experiences with my own mother have left me in a state of deer-in-the-headlights bewilderment about just how quickly things can spiral out of control, and how few resources are available to help families deal with the problems of aging parents. After my mother's second stroke, brought on principally by her failure to take her meds as prescribed ("I forgot... and they didn't seem like they were doing any good anyway."), my siblings and I decided she could no longer live in her beloved home. Between the boxes of "important papers" (credit card receipts from the past 20 years), furniture in various states of (dis)repair, half-finished hobby projects and dust bunnies the size of Rottweilers, the environment posed a severe trip hazard. On top of that, friends and neighbors told us that she and her boyfriend of 30 years would often forget to turn the stove off, or would leave half-eaten food on the counter for days at a time, and then go back to nibble on it later, apparently not realizing that it had never made it back into the fridge. No wonder Mom complains constantly about stomach and digestive problems!

She was still in the hospital when my sister and I tried to gently tell her why she could not go home. It was like reasoning with a two-year old:

"But I like my home. I want to go home."

"Mom, you don't eat properly and you need someone capable who can remind you to take your medications."

"I can cook. I always have. Barrie [the boyfriend, who has terminal cancer] can help out."

"Barrie is very sick. He can't take care of you."

Our mother's domestic problems were only made worse by the fact that she had started a bedroom expansion project many months earlier and somehow neglected to apply for the requisite building permit. The city slapped her with a stop work order and code violations that had to be remedied within days. The police officer patiently pointed out to us all the offending items (old siding, paint buckets, miscellaneous building materials, parts of a garage door hanging in a tree and a collection of about 50 small furniture wheels) that had to be either tossed out or moved to an offsite storage location.

While our mother recuperated in a skilled nursing facility, my sister and I set off on a mad dash to find assisted living quarters for her near my sister's home. What a shock! Barely tolerable to truly depressing are words to describe these places. Some of them are so bad that I wouldn't even board my dog there! As we toured one facility, our host opened the door to a vacant apartment and exclaimed, "Oh, I guess we have a little mold problem." Yeah, like for the past 10 years. Add to that the phenomenal amount of rent that these places charge (from $2800 for the worst to over $6000 per month) and you face old-age sticker shock like never before. A few calculations and you realize just how fast your own mother could bankrupt you. Payback's a bitch... this is what I get for being a colicky baby.

In a carefully choreographed day, the nursing facility discharged Mom and her grocery bag full of medications to me. After a stop at the hospital where the boyfriend was dying, we boarded a plane to her new digs. Do not pass go, collect $200 or visit the old house. It sounds mean and it is. But kidnapping my mother was the only way to make sure that she would not cause further harm to herself. Now we just have to navigate the Medicare maze and figure out how to afford all the expensive care we've signed her up for. At least she can finally live rat-free and I can cancel the pest control service.