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Confessions of a Sometimes Caregiver
By Emily Cooper

(Page 1 of 3)

My mother, an 86-year-old widow, lives alone in a small town in the farming country of central Kansas. Born and raised in the town, she returned there with my father after his retirement, leaving the big city in order to spend their “golden years” with her sisters, brothers, and childhood friends back home. Unfortunately it wasn’t long after my parents’ return that the siblings became ill and died; many of the old friends died as well. Mom took care of her family, one by one, through dementia, strokes, and cancer; and just when she thought she could take a break, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her caregiving resumed again. During those years, Mom had her own share of health problems that required the care of family, and that care always fell to me. Like mother, like daughter.

I moved from Kansas to Colorado back when my parents had plenty of family and relatively good health. But over the last 20 years, in addition to regular visits, I’ve probably made two dozen trips to Kansas to be with them during each health crisis. When my father was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, I frequently went home to relieve my mother and helped her move him to a nursing home a few months before his death.

My brother lives only an hour from my mother and he provides a lot of support—but of a limited kind. My sister also would be willing to help, though she freely admits she is not a nurturer. Having a young son with health problems makes it difficult for her to get away. It appears that I’m the ideal caregiver: female, nurturer, no kids.

My mother’s most recent health problem is a condition that has caused her much discomfort and stress for more than a year. Her doctor has been reluctant to recommend surgery to correct the problem because of Mom’s age and history of heart disease. Mom has tried her best to live with the condition, but finally she can’t deal with it any longer and insists on the surgery, with the understanding that the choice could endanger her life. Soon after, Mom calls to tell me about the planned surgery. Though she doesn’t ask me to come home, I know she’s hoping I’ll volunteer. After the call, I switch into “caregiver mode,” and everything else in my life takes a back seat to Mom’s urgent need and my concern for her. I quickly arrange for unpaid leave from work. It’s easy to do, thanks to employers and co-workers who are sensitive to the issues of family caregivers, but still I feel guilty about leaving. I find myself justifying the need to go by explaining, “Mom’s 86 and she has heart problems...,” as if the surgery alone isn’t important enough to require my leaving to be with her. I know my employers understand, so why do I feel the need to dramatize?

On the long drive to Kansas, I have too much time to dwell on the possible outcomes of Mom’s surgery. She’s basically strong, but she is 86. Will she come out of the anesthesia? Will her high blood pressure cause a stroke? Will she have a heart attack? Or maybe, just maybe, will she be fine? I remind myself that Mom has weathered dozens of health crises. Whatever happens, we’ll find a way to deal with it. But in the background, in spite of my “Whatever will be, will be” line, is the whispered prayer, over and over: “Please let her be okay, please let her be okay...”

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