My Mother’s Keeper
Personal Essay from a Card Carrying Member of the Sandwich Generation
According to Statistics Canada, the 2011 Canadian Census counted 4.9 million people aged 65 or older, up over 28 percent from about 3.8 million in 2001. Of these almost 5 million people, about 350,000 lived in special care facilities such as nursing homes, chronic care, long-term care hospitals and residences for senior citizens.
My mother is one of them. She turned ninety years old last August.
I am her best friend, her most loyal visitor, her chauffeur, her personal shopper, her bookkeeper, her financial consultant, her power of attorney for property and personal care and her advocate with the long-term care system. Like so many other Boomers and Gen Xers, I am my mother’s keeper.
Compared to many with aging parents, I am fortunate. My mother lives in a long-term care facility. She shares a room with another resident and the staff provide her meals and basic medical care. She is mobile with the aid of a walker and although she probably could not say what day it is, or even what year it is, she has most of her mental facilities, is able to dress herself, and manages her personal care with a little assistance. She is becoming very hard of hearing though and has been legally blind for several years. She is fiercely independent and worries constantly about how she will cope if her hearing and sight fail completely.
It was about fifteen years ago when I stopped being the child and became a parent to my aging mother and father. Back then, both Mom and Dad were still living in their own home, about a three-hour drive from my house. My father’s health was rapidly deteriorating and he was no longer able to function on his own. Despite daily visits from a nurse and a community care worker, someone had to ensure that he took the right medications at the right times and that their finances were in order and that they were eating properly. I called each morning to make sure he had taken the pills I had counted out. Each evening, I would call to make sure they had a proper dinner and that my father had taken his evening medication. After arriving one Friday evening to find my father still covered in a week’s worth of nitro patches, I began asking him where he put his patch each morning and playing a game of hide-and-go-seek the patch over the phone each evening. Every weekend, I would drive up and take care of the banking, the grocery shopping, and all the other tasks that they could no longer manage on their own.
After a couple of years, my father passed away quietly and my mother was left on her own. Although in relatively good health, she had never learned to drive and needed my help with her shopping and errands. Finances had always been my father’s domain, so my mother was more than willing for me to take on total responsibility for the paying the bills and filing her taxes and I assumed power of attorney. For about two more years, my mother was able to manage with a lot of help from the neighbours and with my weekend visits but eventually it was clear that she needed more assistance and could no longer stay in her own home.
After a trial week at a retirement home near my house, she surprised me by agreeing to move there. It was the perfect arrangement for her situation. She had a private bed-sitting room and bathroom but could go down to the communal dining room for meals. There was a laundry room where she could do her own laundry and a hairdresser onsite and many activities that she could join in.
Once she had settled in at the retirement home, her house had to be sold and all her furniture and possessions had to be auctioned off. I spent many a weekend cleaning and sorting a lifetime worth of belongings. Anyone who hasn’t emptied a four-drawer file cabinet filled with receipts dating back thirty years cannot fully appreciate the enormity of the task.
For several years after that, my care-giving was much easier. I picked up random treats and toiletries weekly, paid the bills and managed medical appointments. I visited on Saturdays, often doing small tasks like changing the bed and vacuuming that were too much for my mother to handle by herself.
But then one evening, I got the call that all caregivers dread. Mom had a bad fall and the ambulance was taking her into the hospital. Could I meet them in the emergency room? Mom had broken her hip and because of her chronic chest congestion, it would be almost a week before they could perform the surgery to repair it. They kept her heavily drugged to manage her pain and she was frequently verbally abusive to the nursing staff and even to me. Even weeks after the surgery, she was simply not herself and was prone to hallucinations and delusions. She stubbornly would not ask for any assistance and every day or two I would receive a call telling me that she had fallen trying to walk on her own and was being taken for x-rays, or for a scan. It was a nightly battle of wills to get her to eat any of her dinner and I often resorted to bribery. She was on strict fluid rationing because of hypernatremia — a sodium deficiency — but I would barter a half cup of tea just to get her to eat a little of her meal.
My mother was ultimately in the hospital for about six months. While she was there, I learned a lot about elder-care. I even learned how to manage her IV, to stop it and disconnect it so I could help her dress, how to silence the alarm on the IV pump and even how to clear minor occlusions. I became an expert on the layout of the hospital because they moved her from wing to wing and floor to floor and room to room every week or so, wherever they could find space. She went from the ICU to the surgical ward to maternity and even to pediatrics for a few days until they could find her a bed in the seniors’ convalescent unit. I became a valued customer at the hospital cafeteria and I held a weekly parking pass. I gave directions to anyone who looked lost and became adept at making my way from one end of the building to the other without actually touching any surface with my bare hand.
Finally, they determined that my mother was ready for discharge and I learned about the Community Care Access Centre or CCAC. They provided me with information on long-term care facilities. There was an extreme shortage of beds and I was given the choice of an older, rundown home in Toronto that had been in receivership for ten years or a facility in Owen Sound, about a two and a half hour drive from where I worked. I toured the home in Toronto, and despite its rundown appearance, it at least seemed clean and more cheerful than the hospital and I made arrangements to have my mother transferred there. Once out of the hospital, she immediately began to improve and finally seemed to be at least a shadow of her old self.
She has been living there now for over five years. The home has since been bought by a long-term care management company and improvements have slowly been made in the facility. Because of the addition of a short-term stay wing to the home, my mother has had to change rooms three times since she arrived but has at least remained on the same floor where she is familiar with her surroundings and can get around on her own, despite her visual impairment. I have joined the Family Council and try to provide a voice for all the residents who don’t have a family to look after them.
I visit my mother most afternoons on my way home from work and communicate with her caregivers almost daily. And now, should we meet a new resident in the halls, my mother proudly introduces me — “This is my daughter and she looks after me. She is my keeper.”