The Unsung Heroes Who Give Up Everything To Take Care Of A Sick Parent

Caregivers Reveal What It's Really Like To Look After A Sick Parent

This is the second installment of a three-part series entitled Unsung Heroes: The Face Of American Caregiving. In honor of National Family Caregivers Month, The Huffington Post is highlighting a few of the remarkable people around the country who put their own lives on pause to tend to friends and family who have fallen ill. This installment features those who care for parents. Last week's piece featured those who care for partners. The final piece, on Nov. 17, will feature those who care for multiple people.

It's not easy to put your life on pause to care for an ailing parent, but according to Gallup, 70 percent of mid-life caregivers are tending to a parent or parental figure. These people are devoting incredible amounts of time and energy into making sure they can do for their parents what their parents did for them -- getting their loved one through the day during a particularly vulnerable period in life.

This role reversal certainly isn't easy, but it's becoming more of a universal experience each day. Below, we've rounded up the stories of some remarkable people tirelessly caring for their sick parents.

These stories were compiled by Rebecca Adams and Yagana Shah.


Gianfranco Fiorio, 63, is a caregiver for his mother, Maria, who has Alzheimer's disease.

"I started actually a long time ago in terms of helping out. My father passed away at a very young age from cancer back in 1975, so I tried to do everything I could to help her in terms of organizing things and just making sure that she’d be OK. In terms of the serious problems that she started having, I would say that she was diagnosed right around 2009 with Alzheimer’s.

It’s challenging, to say the least, what I have to do now. The one thing I’ve learned is to ask for help. It’s hard to do by yourself. What I had to do was bring in another caregiver and specialists to help me. My day consists of making sure that these people get whatever help is needed, that I’m there to translate, to make sure that whatever needs that mom has can be made. She used to speak English very well, but due to the onset of the Alzheimer’s, she’s lost an awful lot of it and her primary language is Italian right now.

The priority has been to take care of mom. I’ve had to cut back on traveling for work. I’ve also had to learn as much as I could about what I could do to make the quality of her life a lot better. Because of the huge amounts of time that that’s taken, any woman or anybody that’s in my life right now would have to understand the amounts of time that are given to what I have to do.

I’ve now accepted that idea that there’s a role reversal, that the parent now becomes the child. You have to step up to the plate and do what you can to help. But one thing I’ve learned is if you do not take care of yourself and you start getting yourself rundown, it’s going to not only impact your ability to help your loved one but also your ability to help yourself. Your health is critical. If you don’t take care of your health, what else do you really have? You have to learn how to eat correctly, to get rest and sleep. You need to figure out ways to reduce that stress, because that stress can kill you. I find that through finding quiet time for myself, listening to music or watching movies. I also try to get to church every Sunday to put my mind in a different place.

I don’t take things for granted at all. I appreciate everything I have, even just my health but also the friends and the family that I have around me. These things are very, very important. Some of the things that I thought were important years ago, they’re really not. I don’t have any regrets about the fact that I’m taking care of mom. It is something that I think has hopefully made me a better person."

Linda Tedesco, 54, is a caregiver for her mother, Patty, who has macular degeneration.

"I have been caring for my mom for as long as I can remember. When my mom was first diagnosed with macular degeneration, she basically fell apart. Then one day, one of the doctors happened to mention telescopic implants. So I started researching that, finding doctors, setting up appointments, going with her to the appointments and, for the surgery, going to New York with her for a whole week.

I went not only for the telescopic implant surgery with her, but I went to all of the rehab with her so that when there were questions, I was there. I heard, I saw, I could reinforce. It was all day, between the doctors and the occupational therapists. But as my mother learned how to use telescope, I could see her independence coming right back. It was awesome. She was fighting for her freedom to get back on her own again.

Now I drive my mom, because my mom does not drive. But my mother can now cook; she’s back to needlepoint; she’s back to quilting, sewing, gardening. She’s really just about 100 percent on her own.

At one point, we were really worried in thinking my mom was going to have to come and move in with me. A lot of my life was put on hold. My family sacrificed a lot, because I wasn’t home. It was no longer me just doing a quick grocery shopping, because I’d go get my mother and it would take twice as long.

I’m not going to say it was easy. Would I do it all over again? Absolutely, hands down, especially because the outcome was so good. My mother was going into depression -- macular degeneration doesn’t only rob you of your eyesight, it robs you of your independance. It robbed my mother of her joy. My mother is such an outgoing, independent person that this was life-changing for her.

I don’t care what your parent is suffering from or needs, you have to have time for yourself, just to recharge the batteries. If you’re not happy, you’re not recharged, you’re not satisfied, unfortunately it comes out in you when you take care of your parent. At least with my mom, it was tough enough for her to even accept the help. To see how unhappy I would be wouldn’t be fair. So I’d use running as my therapy.

I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was. I am shocked on how much you really can handle when push comes to shove."

Glenn Harris, 59, is a caregiver for his father, Wilbur, who has Alzheimer's disease.

"My father came into my home in December of 2008, about two months after my mom passed. I do everything. It started with just the basic things, since he was always looking for what it was he was supposed to be doing. He had had some cancer surgery for prostate. Because of that, he had little bladder control. By the time he came in to move in with me, he was just unable to contain holding all of it back. Depends are a miracle -- they are the greatest thing to come along since sliced bread.

Everything that I used to give towards taking care of kids, now I’m using towards taking care of my father. So I guess I look at it from the aspect of: I’ve had 30 years of trying to make a life and a career and a reputation and so now I’m just modifying that to take care of him.

My wife is a sacrificial woman, she’s just amazing in every way. I bought a motorcycle, so if I get an hour and I can go away, my wife and I go out on the motorcycle to get a bite to eat. It’s kind of a pace-breaker, but it’s so hard for us to get time.

I’ve learned that there just doesn’t seem to be any greater honor than to take care of the one who gave me life. My mother and my father gave up so much to raise me. Every once in a while I get frustrated and I say, ‘Look, if you don’t straighten up, I’ll take you to the veteran’s home.’ I’m joking, of course. And he doesn’t know, because once people reach this stage of Alzheimer’s, they don’t know that they’re having issues.

I’ve had to make a mental change to the fact that, OK my station in life is to care for my father right now. I can get back to whatever goals I have for my business and goals that I have for my family. I can get back to that when this part of my life is done, but this part is here now and I take it for what it is.

As long as I can care for him, I will. I’m going to be a better person when this is all done. I’ll be able to contribute to society, because I will have experienced things that most people won’t have. That’s something that everybody needs the opportunity to experience to become a better person."

Amy Goyer, 53, is a caregiver for her father, Robert, who has Alzheimer's disease.

"I’ve actually been a caregiver my entire adult life, starting with my grandparents when I was in my 20s. Over the past 20 years, I had been helping support my mom, who suffered a stroke at 63, but then it started to become apparent that my dad was also getting Alzheimer’s.

In 2008, daddy started really needing more. It was sort of a gradual support thing. I would help him do projects, like help him with refinancing the house. But then he got sick, he went in the hospital and his dementia went way downhill, so he moved in with me. His dementia has gotten a lot worse since mom passed away a year ago. She was really his North Star.

It’s an emotional rollercoaster to see your parents decline little by little. I always compare it to water torture, because it’s like drip by drip they start easing away. Sometimes it’s just exhausting and you want to let go and be their child again. One of the things that I have tried to do throughout is give him the opportunity to do that. He’s still is my dad, and he still has that ability to give. I think that’s a human need. When I’m tired, I’ll just go up to him and say, ‘Daddy, can I have a hug?’ He’ll say, ‘You hang in there, kid.’ He’ll still take on that role.

I’m a working caregiver, and I’m fortunate that I made choices in my career so that I would have more flexibility. When my parents started needing more support, I made a decision that I needed to change my work situation and my life to be the way I wanted it to be so I could be there for them. So I sat down and I wrote down how I wanted my life to be. I wanted to be in a supportive, happy environment that allowed me to be there for my parents.

In some ways, I see work as respite. It reminds me that it’s important that I keep my identity. One of the things that I do in taking care of myself, I try to work in quality time with my dad, where we can both have fun. I try to work those things in, because it’s not realistic for me to think I’m going to have a whole day to myself this week. That’s just never going to happen.

I think I have this tendency to just keep going, going, going and then crash. So I’ve learned more about taking care of myself, about paying attention to the signs when I start to head down that road towards burnout."

Kimberly Archuletta, 50, is a caregiver for her mom, Lilly, who has Alzheimer's disease and ischemic dementia.

"I have been doing this since 2009. When my dad died, my mom became alone in her own home. So I was coming by daily to take care of her, and I was noticing she was doing things that weren’t quite right, so I decided to move in.

Initially, I was just watching her, but things have gradually gotten worse. All of a sudden, she became pretty violent. It was almost like she’d go somewhere else. We’d be sitting down watching a movie, and she would get up -- we’d think she was going to go in the kitchen or something -- and she would grab a lamp and try and hit you over the head with it.

My mom has always been really joyful; my mom never cried. She was not one to show emotion like that. But she cries now and I hold her. I think it scares her sometimes as much as it scares me.

After my dad died, my mom would say, ‘I wonder when dad’s going to get home.’ I’d go, ‘Mom, dad died.’ And she would cry all over again. That happened for three months. For three months, my mom would wait everyday for my dad to get home and everyday I had to tell my mom that my dad died. Everyday she had to relive his death. That was probably the hardest thing for me.

Right before she started to wander and do things, I started staying here a lot more. My house got broken into several times, I guess because people noticed I wasn’t home a lot, so I had to give up my house.

I’ve lost a lot of friends -- I just don’t have time for them. I’ve sacrificed friendships, relationships with my grandkids and my children. I have several grandchildren, and I used to watch them all the time. I no longer can do that, so I lost valuable time. I couldn’t watch them anymore when my mom started getting violent tendencies. My kids were afraid that they might hurt their kids.

I have met a wonderful man who, ironically, took care of his grandfather while I was taking care of mom. So he understands my situation too. We try and have a relationship, but he knows that if we’re on a date, my phone is by my hip. I get people to watch my mom, because I’m a strong believer in respite care -- I need time for me.

I know I’m not any more special than anybody else is. I’ve always thought that I was alone doing it, but there are so many people out there who are caregivers. It’s not easy, so it’s important to know you’re not alone."

Katie Laxalt, 56, is a caregiver for her mother, Patricia, who has macular degeneration and atrial fibrillation.

“I’m a single parent, so I told my two kids, when they turned 18 or graduated from high school, I was going to fly the coop -- I joked! After my son graduated high school, I was planning to move, but my mom was getting progressively sick. She was having a hard time with pneumonia and her mobility. I talked to my mom and said, ‘What do you think about me coming and living at home? You’re getting older.’ My siblings, they all wanted this, too. They said ‘Please go home and take care of mom.’ I came back home in June 2013 and -- would you believe it -- the first week I was there, she ended up in the hospital for a week with pneumonia. She has arthritis and macular degeneration in her left eye, leaving her almost blind in that eye. Her medications cause trouble with her short-term memory, so she repeats things a lot, which can test my patience sometimes. Caregiving is now my full-time gig, because every time I went to try and get a job, my mother got sick. Someone has to be here to give her lunch and her pills. I do the laundry, I put out her meds and try and keep the house clean. But what she likes to do is sit in the car and drive around and look at scenery. She reminisces, even though she can’t drive. She was always very active, so she always has to be doing something. I volunteer with her twice a month, and we prepare a meal for the seniors locally. It keeps her active. When I was working, I was working 60-70 hours a week, and I was so consumed with myself in working that I really didn’t make time for myself. Now I do make time for myself. So at night, I read or work on a craft project after she goes to sleep. Sometimes I wake up early just to read. I do a bit of yard work. We got a dog last year, so he keeps me fairly active. People ask me what sacrifices I’ve made, and it really doesn’t seem like a sacrifice to me. I guess I am sacrificing money because I’m not working – but for me, I didn’t have a spouse or kids at home, so I was sitting home alone. What I actually have found is companionship. Instead of watching a show by yourself and talking out loud, at least you can talk out loud and someone will answer. My mother also really misses my dad a lot, though he’s been gone seven years. She said to me, ‘Kate, I never like to be alone.’ I worked with seniors for quite a few years and so I understand the loneliness. I left home when I was 18 and I missed a lot of her, when I was growing up since I was away. We would see each other once a year. Now I’m getting to know her a lot better and she’s getting to know me a lot better."

Lee Anne Stradford, 51, is a caregiver for her mother, Gloria, who suffers from dementia.

"I used to look at other people in this situation and say, 'I don’t know how they could ever do this,' but you know, you learn how to find strength from within. My dad was diagnosed with stage four cancer a while back. My mom went into a deep depression at that time, and she couldn’t do anything to support him. He died about two years later. After he passed, my mom started becoming forgetful. We went to the doctor and they gave her something for dementia. I had to hire somebody to stay at home with her while I went to work, because she wasn’t capable of being here by herself. It is really a financial strain and when I get home from work at five, I take over a second job. I have to change her, I feed her, I bathe her. It’s mentally draining sometimes, but I do it because she’ll say to me sometimes, 'You take such good care of me. Thank you so much for everything you do.' It really touches my heart, and I just continue to do this even though I’m not able to go out like my friends. It’s just very difficult for me to find the time to go out on a consistent basis or be out in the dating world. What’s really difficult is, whenever I go out, it’s always a financial sacrifice. I have to pay someone to come in to care for my mother. I feel like there’s so much I’d love to be able to do. I just feel like I’m running a one-woman show here. I’m trying to keep myself together. But I stay hopeful, stay prayerful and keep faith in God. I keep a standing hair appointment at my favorite beauty salon. When you look good, it makes you feel better. So, I keep my hair appointment. That’s something I refuse to give up. I love reading so on a weekend sometimes, I’ll go to Barnes and Noble, get my reading materials, get a cup of coffee and I will sit and just enjoy. Since I can’t travel, I’ll get travel magazines and look at them and say maybe I can start picking and choosing some of the places I can go someday, when this chapter of my life is over. I do a lot of dreaming. I try to make plans for my future. I’ve learned that I really have the power to do anything and that you can’t really ever fear anything. You just have to trust. I just keep addressing needs of the day and the challenges in front of me."

Jennifer Lysik, 29, is a caregiver for her mother, Krystyna, who has aphasia. "Right before my 27th birthday, we found my mother on the floor unresponsive and took her to the hospital. We found out she had a stroke and, on top of that, she had hemorrhage. She’s unable to speak and she’s paralyzed on her entire right side, her dominant side. She is completely immobile; she has no form of communication; she can’t read, write or speak. I go to her house every day after work and make sure she has food. I feed her; I clean her; I make sure her pills are taken. I take care of finances, and I have power of attorney. I think for someone of my age, it’s not something you just know or figure out. I’ve grown up faster than anybody under the age of 30. I don’t know anybody under age 30, who is taking their mom to the toilet and literally putting them on a commode, cleaning them up. I don’t know even a lot of adults that do that -- period. I have a twin brother, but being the woman in the family, you take on a lot more responsibility. He’s just the one that will go in and have a chat. He’s not there doing the real day-to-day chores. I think as a woman, you’re expected to do those types of things. It’s hard. It’s not an easy task. I want to believe my mom is the same person she was 10 years ago, but it’s really different, because I feel like she’s regressed into an almost baby-like state. But you have to take the time not only to worry about them, you have to worry about yourself. Otherwise, you could end up with more health issues than them and no one will be able to take care of either of you. I was in remission for about three years for a thyroid disorder. But back in January, one day, I was just doing my typical day-to-day things and, all of a sudden, my heart was racing. My thyroid was re-diagnosed with Graves’ disease, five times worse than my first diagnosis. I was so focused on my mom, I didn’t believe there was anything wrong with me. You have to have a 50/50 split. You need to focus on you, too. I am so young that I don’t want to look back at life 20 years from now and say, 'I wish I could have done that.' I try to incorporate my parents into my social life. I take them on vacations with me. It’s for them to enjoy life and my time to enjoy my life with husband and friends. I try to include them, so they don’t feel disengaged from life, too. I just want to let other people who might be my age know that they’re not alone in this stage of life. It can happen at any age, but I think sometimes we forget that life is so unpredictable. You could be in your 20s and this could happen. Caregiver doesn’t mean you have to be in your 60s or 70s. It can happen at a much earlier age."

Andrea Toran, 55, is a caregiver for her mother, Anne, who has front-temporal dementia. “For two solid years, my sisters and I have been primary caregivers for our mom. We have a schedule; we do 15 shifts a week between five of us. We change her, clean her, clean the house, do laundry, shopping and feeding. I have never seen a better functioning team than my sisters. Five of the six of us live in and around the cape. We have a log and we report in every single day after every single shift. It’s becomes the overarching thing we do as a family -- sometimes that’s not so good, because we’ve lost a bit of our spark. We’re pretty tired. We all have friends, but it’s hard to maintain lots of relationships between our work and what we do with our mom. All of us, we have demanding jobs and relationships, and it’s a strain. It’s emotionally taxing when you’re changing your mother’s Depends and your mother can’t talk to you. She’s here, but she’s not, and that’s devastating. I think the sacrifice for all of us, is the lack of freedom that we have now, because we’re tied to a schedule, which means that there’s not a lot of spontaneity in life. It’s not like I can just pick up and go anywhere when I want to, though I can afford to. We can’t leave each other in the lurch. But it’s a choice we’ve made. We support each other. We have a pact that when our mother no longer needs us like this, the six of us are going away to relax -- no kids, no husbands. I think my mom did the impossible, which was make us even closer than we were before she got sick. We’ve always been close, and now we’re close as sisters, friends and caregivers. We live in such a beautiful environment that we all go to the beach together. We try to balance our lives by getting out and being active. If one of my sisters needs a break, someone will jump in to hold the other one up. Whoever has the broadest shoulders at the moment is like, 'You can stand on me for a bit if you need a break.' We seriously do that often."

Dianne Bertrand, 52, was a caregiver for her mother, Janet, who had cervical cancer. “Right before my 50th birthday, I had a feeling my mom was sick. She’s a small-framed woman and she looked smaller than normal. One day she calls me and tells me she’s sick. I knew that my life was going to change in that moment. By the time they diagnosed her, it was already stage four cervical cancer. I asked how long she had, and the doctors said probably no longer than five months. But she made it two-and-a-half years. Nobody ever thinks about having to see their parent naked. I had to bathe her and shower her. I was so terrified because I knew that she was so skinny and frail, it was going to be hard on me to see her like that. But by the grace of God, somehow I found strength. I came over and did her wash, went grocery shopping, mailed her bills and took care of her checkbook. I wanted to make her feel like she didn’t have to worry about anything, but she was upset she couldn’t do it herself. I had to take her back and forth for constant treatments. It just got so bad -- it was heartbreaking. I cried more than she did. She deteriorated. She was always consoling me, so everyone thought I had cancer, not her. She never wanted to quit, never wanted to give up. I did a lot of crying. Maybe that was my release. I just had a support in my partner Nicole. She lost both her parents. I never really understood that pain until it happened to me. It was great to have somebody like her know exactly what I was going through. She would say, 'Don’t hold it in. Go ahead -- cry. It’s healthy.' I put on weight, because I didn’t really take care of myself in the sense of going and doing my athletic activities. My whole time was either at work or with my mom. Being a caregiver definitely takes up all your time. If I had to do it all over again, I would. I look at it as a blessing every day I had with her. I’m a stronger person than I ever thought I could be. I told my mom that she was so tough, I said 'You’re my hero,' and she said, 'No, you’re my hero.' I never looked at myself like that, but that’s what I was to her: her hero."

*Interviews have been condensed and edited.