You Don’t Have to Do It All Alone
I’ll never forgot the night my mom came home crying. I hadn’t seen her cry, at least not in front of me, ever. My dad and I sat there for a few minutes not knowing what to say or if we should even say anything. My dad was the first to break the silence and asked what was wrong although we both knew what it was about
Approximately three years earlier, my mom’s parents, were 85 and 93 respectively. Despite their age,
they were still in relatively good health as they had no serious medical conditions and were still quite agile. We genuinely thought they were going to live past 100 as my grandpa was still driving at 91! Then, one day the dreaded downward spiral started. My grandpa suffered a mini-stroke which affected his mobility and resulted in him using a cane then eventually a walker. An avid reader, sports enthusiast and artist, he slowly started to lose his vision and became legally blind in one eye. He could no longer read “The Times” magazines, see the TV clearly or draw in his spare time as his mini-stroke affected the right side of his body and his eyesight started failing him.
My grandma, who had gotten hit by a car in her 60’s, also saw her body shut down on her and she also became reliant on a walker. However, it wasn’t her physical limitations that got to her, it was her
mind. She had always loved gardening and you could tell she was passionate about it just by looking at her yard. Every time my sister and I would come visit, we knew we would find her outside planting flowers, taking out shrubs or sifting soil with her infamous red wheelbarrow. As she got older, the pain from her car accident started to resurface. She started gardening less and less until eventually she didn’t at all anymore. She fell into a depression, refused to go out, stopped eating and then she refused to get out of bed. Although my mom went over to visit and check in everyday, my grandma would still sleep throughout the day and night. My mom thought that by having my sister or I come visit it would make a difference, but it did not. She wouldn’t even get out of my bed to go to my sister’s birthday dinner which was something she wouldn’t have missed in a heartbeat years earlier. However, the day she told me she wished she would die was the day I realized that no matter how tough it was for me to see and hear her like this, it was even worse for my mom.
For four years, my mom struggled with the same struggles almost everyone in the “Sandwich Generation” has faced: caring for her elderly parents and looking after her children (my sister and I). This became her full time job whether she realized it or not. She tried hiring additional help but my grandma refused to accept care from anyone and my grandpa was too proud to admit he needed help. So, this ultimately meant my mom was their primary and only caregiver. Her daily routine would involve dropping my sister off at school in the morning, going to my grandparents’ house during the day to make sure they hadn’t fallen, try to convince my grandma to get out of bed, provide companionship to my grandpa who was lonely, pick up my sister from school in the afternoon, prepare dinner for her family and then visit my grandparents again in the evening. Sometimes after she’d come home in the evening, she’d receive a call from my grandpa saying that he didn’t know what to do about my grandma and he wanted my mom to come over. Although she knew there was nothing she could do, she would go over to give my grandpa some sliver of hope and peace of mind.
As my dad and I sat with my mom in the living room waiting to hear what was wrong, I felt completely useless as I knew that she had exhausted all options to try and look after them. She had become entirely burnt out and my grandparents’ conditions were only worsening. As she sat in her chair with defined bags under her eyes from sleepless nights, she reluctantly said that she had decided to put them in an assisted living facility because it was the last resource she could try. For the longest time, my grandparents were firm on staying in their home but my mom believed it was no longer safe or healthy for them to be there when she wasn’t. My mom had tried home care but the agency she used did not send consistent caregivers so my grandparents couldn’t get used to the people who came in and the caregivers couldn’t learn their routine. Unfortunately, this experience with a particular home care agency deterred her from looking into or trying others. My mom did everything: the bathing, meal preparation, toileting and companionship. She never said she was burnt out but we could all tell she was. She continued to care for them day and night because if she didn’t she was concerned that something might happen. I believe the catalyst of her decision to move them to assisted living was when my grandma had microwaved her sweater which almost caught the house on fire and my grandpa had fallen twice resulting in him lying on the floor overnight as my grandma could not help him up.
It’s something that nobody really thinks of until it happens. Throughout the majority of your life, your parents look after you physically, emotionally, and financially. Since my grandparents prided themselves on being independent most of their lives, I don’t believe my mom ever thought they would become completely reliant on her so when it happened she didn’t know who or where to turn to. My mother had become so overwhelmed that it affected her own health. Balancing it with an already hectic schedule, she didn’t know it but she was suffering from caregiver burnout. She was constantly stressed worrying about their safety, physically and emotionally drained from exhaustion, frequently experienced changes in her mood as she felt hopeless, withdrew from social activities as she spent most of her time with them and recurrently felt guilty that there was nothing more she could do for them. Her dedication to caring for her parents took a toll on her.
In 2012, my grandma and grandpa entered an assisted living facility. It was tough for them to
leave their home and all the memories it possessed. Moving to an assisted living facility
definitely wasn’t the ideal situation for them, but we all made the best of it. For the first year, my grandma’s mental health actually improved significantly. She went to the dining hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner and even attended some of the facility’s activities like the holiday Christmas baking. My grandpa’s physical health stayed about the same but the best thing was that he was happy again seeing my grandma get out of bed and live her life again. Although they were being looked after now, my mom still went over in the morning and evening every day to visit. But, now she was free from the stress and pressure of being their only caregiver. You could see the relief in her face as she was more willing to go on vacations and take time out for herself.
Two years after my grandparents moved into an assisted living facility, my grandma passed away in
her sleep. One year after her death, my grandpa followed. However, during the last three years of their lives, my mom was able to care for them and herself. With additional help, she was able to do some of the things she loved again such as go on vacation without worrying about them, work in the garden in her spare time and find time to see her friends. She was able to balance her personal life while still being a part of my grandparents’ lives. To this day, I can still tell she wonders if she did everything she could to make sure they lived as long as possible due to the huge responsibility that fell on her. For those who are in similar situations, I would tell them what I wished I had told my mom. It’s okay to bring in help from others, take time out for your own health and don’t feel guilty about it as you’re doing everything you can.