Three years ago our mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Fortunately my sister caught the symptoms early enough that Mom’s doctor was able to place her on medication that has–at least until recently–helped her have more good days than bad days.
Then came the strokes. Not many, but enough to affect her ability to properly care for and express herself. The strokes led to a few falls–no serious injuries, just a few stitches here and there–but naturally a cause of concern for my stepfather, sister and I. Mom’s temperament makes caring for her challenging at times, too–even at her diminutive size. At the same time, given the deterioration of her health and loss of independence, I can understand the frustration and anger she probably feels. After all, I don’t know of anyone who looks forward to spending most of their retirement years not being able to care for and express themselves.
Our stepfather has been absolutely amazing through all of Mom’s health challenges–caring for her every need, listening to her angry outbursts, everything. If anyone deserves sainthood, my sister and I agree its him. At the same time, we could tell caring for Mom 24-7 was wearing him down. Different people offered to help; but he always said they would be fine and not to worry. If they needed anything, he would call.
That call came in December a few days before Christmas.
Our stepfather had a heart attack in the middle of the night. Fortunately he was able to call a relative to come take him to the hospital. My sister came and took Mom into her home. Richard and I traveled from Illinois for our stepfather’s open heart surgery and to help with Mom for a couple of days. Richard returned to my sister’s the following week to help for a few days while she went back to work and I returned to Chicago to work.
The good news is our stepfather is doing great. He is now recovering at my sister’s; he walks daily, cares for himself with almost no assistance and is following doctor’s orders. We’re amazed and thankful for how well his recovery is going.
Mom, on the other hand, continues to deteriorate. As hard as it is to witness, we accept this deterioration as part of her disease process. No one is blaming God for what is happening; and fortunately no one has said they believe this is all somehow part of God’s plan for my parents’ lives–at least not within earshot of me. I know this part of her journey has to be hardest on Mom; still, our stepfather watches helplessly and does what he can to make sure she is comfortable–which at this point in his recovery is very little.
This past week I made another trip home to help my sister and to sit with her and my stepfather to have what I call “the nursing home discussion.” The harsh reality is our mother is not able to care for herself, and we believe our stepfather risks her safety and his health if he tries to take her home and care for her. While he is now willing to accept help from family members, another harsh reality is none of us can quit our jobs and provide the care Mom needs–especially at night when she decides she wants to get out of bed and watch television–and lifting her when she falls is definitely not something our stepfather will be able to do again.
My sister and I thought we were doing our best to honor our parents’ wishes for us to care for them. My sister had already completed research on local nursing homes; and as a medical professional she has excellent contacts in the area. She had called our parents’ primary physician who agreed it was time–actually past time–for us to make this decision. We had worked together to determine our parents had the finances necessary to fund this option as well as support our stepfather. Mom would receive the 24-7 care she needs, and our stepfather could continue his recovery while visiting her as often and as long as he chose. Family members would also visit and check on both of them on a regular basis.
The conversation went well–or so we thought. Our stepfather agreed our proposal made sense. At the same time, he hated the thought of placing Mom in a nursing home. “I promised to take care of her and not do this unless I absolutely had to,” he said. I told him we knew that and were grateful for all he had done for our mother; still it was time. It was absolutely necessary now. He said, “You don’t have to thank me for taking care of your Mom; I love her.” By the end of the conversation we had all agreed on a plan as to how to proceed once our stepfather was cleared to drive by his doctor.
The following afternoon I left to return home. 20 minutes into my drive my sister called to let me know our stepfather was reconsidering our plan. The next day he had decided to take Mom home once the doctor cleared him to drive. My sister reminded him of our conversation as well as of the risks involved with his decision. He understands everything, and still wants to move forward with his decision and–as frustrating as it is for the family–it is his decision to make.
So next week my sister and I will honor our stepfather and mother by helping them move back into their home in the country. My sister and other family members will visit regularly and check on them. I will visit and help them financially as I am able.
I will be honest and say I don’t like this idea at all. I think my parents are taking some very dangerous risks. Then again, maybe my stepfather is risking everything out of love for our mother. I have to say, too, that I understand my parents’ tenacity for independence and a semblance of control over the direction of their lives. After all, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. So perhaps–just perhaps–the best way my sister and I can honor our stepfather and mother is to allow them as much independence and control over the direction of their lives as possible.
Who knows? Maybe they will prove us wrong and be able to live out the rest of their lives in their cozy little home in the country.
It’s a nice thought isn’t it? Risking everything for love.