The thought just hit me, as I was driving in my car this morning, that yesterday was the six-year anniversary of my father’s passing, at age 81. In remembrance of that, I wanted to share a column I wrote that was published in the Dallas Morning News in the same year, 2003. I think it speaks volumes to a lot of people but unfortunately it got buried on an inside, all black and white page among many ads, so I’m not sure a lot of people noticed. I hope a lot of people will notice now.
Caregivers’ Cares Span Generations
by Patricia Long Allbee
Never in my wildest imagination, when I was deciding to become a full-time Mom, did I think that someday my own mother would have someone in diapers shortly after I did. Granted, while her brand of choice is Depends and the person she’s taking care of is over seven decades older than my children, the similarities of our situations have been amazing. At first I just noticed a few— I brush my 4-year-old’s teeth at night, she brushes Dad’s; I use a baby monitor to sometimes keep an ear on my children; she asked to borrow it so she could hear Dad better; she worried for weeks about what it would be like to take Dad on an airplane, ditto for me for my first plane trip with children. But when she phoned me one day in exasperation, saying, “I can never get anything done. I never have any time for myself. He’s calling to me, wanting something all the time!” it was a strong déjà vu experience, and I realized that the “circle of life” is much more than a song from a Disney musical. I have also realized that for the first time, I can be a shoulder for Mom to lean on, returning the favor of a lifetime of Mom always being the solid rock.
She is grateful for my empathy and words of encouragement. I knew exactly what she meant when she e-mailed and said some days she can’t even take a shower for fear of him hurting himself. I nodded knowingly when she told me that he was always bored if she took him along to the grocery store or hair salon but leaving him home would mean having to hire a sitter, and that could get expensive. I shared her frustration at the story of her spending a physically demanding day of caregiving only to get yelled at by Dad at day’s end. And boy could I relate about not getting any sleep due to someone constantly needing something in the night —I remember being a walking zombie when my children were infants, and sometimes it’s still hard to get a complete night’s sleep.
“Finally, someone understands,” she says.
I am careful, however, not to be flippant and act like our situations are exactly the same, because I’m well aware that they’re not. In spite of dealing with public tantrums, numerous lost shoes, and permanent marker stains on the wallpaper, there is a lot of joy that goes with my caregiving. I’m nurturing and growing young people, looking forward to them reaching their fullest potential, with a husband to help me. She’s watching someone slowly fade away—someone she’s loved and to which she’s devoted most of her life, and she’s doing it alone, 13 hours away from me and many more hours away from my siblings.
For extra support, I encouraged her to hire someone two or three days a week to sit with Dad and take care of tasks such as bathing and dressing. “I have Mother’s Day Out,” I told her. “You need one, too!”
I also encouraged her to get together with friends who had gone through a similar experience. I told her I’d found lots of my own support in neighbors, in my babysitting co-op and in a group called Mothers of Preschoolers. But even though she has numerous friends, she has never been one to share a lot of personal details, and didn’t want to be a “bother” to them.
So I continue to be Mom’s sounding board, trying to relate when I can, which is still surprisingly more often than not.
“I just can hardly take the stress anymore,” Mom said through tears one day. “And I feel so bad because I told him so!” Ah, guilt… how often have I cried over how I sometimes react to my kids in a not-so-patient way and say things I wish I hadn’t.
A few months ago at a family wedding reception, she and I found ourselves in the same buffet line. Mom lamented that she was ‘starving’ but that she couldn’t eat yet since she always has to fix a plate for Dad first. Then she looked down at my plate, and, pointing to the kid-sized portions on it, laughed.
“You, too, huh?” she asked.
“Me, too,” I replied.