I saw it as she sat at my dining room table. Portable file emptied of medical bills and prescription drug plan information, spread out over the table top and on chair seats. I was working in my home office while she was staying with me for a few weeks recovering from a minor surgery. Several times during the day, I came out of my office to stretch my legs and see how she was doing. Touch-tone phone in hand, my aging mother was attempting to navigate a phone tree system for ordering prescription medications. However, she was unable to push the correct button before hearing, “I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize your choice” from the automated voice on the other end. Over the next several hours, I noticed nothing had changed on that dining room table. And yet, I realized everything was about to change for me. So I closed up my work early for the day and quietly sat down beside her. Slowly, small talk ensued and questions began to surface. Before the day was over, I had my first lesson in Medicare billing. I was 35 years old.
Over the next 10 years as a long-distance caregiver, I found myself leaving my husband and four young daughters several times a year to fly to her home for a week at a time. Later, as her health declined, we moved her back to our hometown. I accompanied her to a variety of doctors’ offices, hospitals and therapy clinics. Phone order pharmacy was replaced with online Internet ordering and pill trays were filled every week with numerous medications for a variety of ailments, some of which were prescribed for side effects of an initial ailment. The mountains of health care paperwork and billings made their way into an organized file cabinet dedicated just for her in my office. I found myself rushing around so I could then slow down when I was with her, trying to do the best I could for her with little or no information.
Sometime during those years, my much-too-young husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Three of our four daughters were married and I became a young grandmother. I continued to work full-time in my home office for a very busy orthopedic physician in order to have the flexibility I needed to be everything to everyone. Then, as a complete surprise to me, I learned the hard way that I was not superwoman and landed myself in the hospital for a week due to sheer exhaustion. I was a completely burned-out, stressed-out caregiver, and I was only 47 years old.
Five years later, my husband died. Mom lived another two years. During the almost 20 years of caring for her, Mom went from living in her own home to living with family members, in an assisted living facility, and finally, skilled nursing care. Although her body continually weakened, she was of a strong nature; opinionated, actively involved in her care and the decision-making process, and she never gave up. But with her strength, came anger with the aging process, increasing disability, and unresolved grief over my father’s passing years earlier. With her opinions, came frustration that she was losing control as she vacillated between being grateful for our help and the impression that her adult children were sometimes all against her. A desire to stay actively involved in her care and decision-making process resulted in several unintentional overdoses of medications that she had hidden from us and a serious car accident during one of those overdoses. (“Why are all the pills white? I thought I was taking a headache medication.” It was, in fact, a tranquilizer.)
“Someday, you will thank me,” she used to tell me. And I do now; every single day. Especially as I take those tough life lessons of caregiving along with subsequent increased scholarship and utilize them in my encore career as an aging services professional. Her influence continues to be felt as I assist current care partners through their experiences, teach others about resources I never knew of, how to work together as families, and how to care for themselves in the process. Through all the ups and downs of my caregiving experience, I count it as one of my greatest privileges to have been called her daughter and caregiver.
Thank you, Mom.