Friday, December 29, 2006

Caring for Elderly Family Members

The recent death of my husband's grandmother has me thinking about caring for elderly family members. His grandmother had been ill off and on for two years, and most of the care fell to her husband, who, thankfully, is a bit younger and in good health.

He's not alone. A study by the Urban Institute found that people 75 and older provide more hours of caregiving than people in any other age group.

She had two daughters in the area and another daughter that lives away, but teaches and is off summers. She also has a son who lives in another region, but travels a lot with his job. Neither of the two children who live away had been in recently. I suspect late summer was the last time she saw them. Of course, this had been going on for two years, so maybe they thought she'd recover. I'm not sure. It's not my place to judge.

But the situation did make me wonder what role my Hubby and I would play in caring for our parents. My grandmother lived with us for a time after my grandfather's death. Near the end of her life, she lived with my aunt, who had a huge house and could more easily accommodate her. My mother took a leave of absence from her job to be with her during her final month. She also lived nearby and saw her several times a week. Her other children also visited weekly and would spend the day sitting with her. She was never alone. Even before the end, she saw her children regularly.

So that's my model. I know I would do anything to care for my parents - get a bigger house, not work, move in, whatever I can do. But it's easier, of course, when you live nearby. So many families are so spread out and disconnected, I wonder what will happen in these families as their parents die.

My hubby's family is a different matter. He doesn't get along with his stepfather, who never really embraced him as family. Plus, his stepfather has his own son, and I'd assume he'd take care of his father. His mother and he are in touch, but the relationship between our family and her is rocky.

Which makes me wonder what role children should play in their parents care. In cases where the family isn't close - where there have been very real problems, such as abuse, addiction or detachment - should parents count on them to drop their lives and run to help?

Are we as humans obligated to care for family members who didn't care for us when we needed it? And if we don't, who will?

And what about siblings who don't have children? Will I be able to care for my younger brother if he outlives his wife and doesn't have kids? If I don't, then who?

Incredibly, that's what 101-year-old Clarice Morant does. She cares for both her 89-year-old sister and her 95-year-old brother, with limited assistance. Incredibly, there are younger family members - but they live far away and have only stepped in when Morant was hospitalized and too sick to do the job. She recovered and took up the role as lead caretaker.

Most people don't have a Clarice Morant in their lives. And so, many elderly people live alone - apparently without family, such as this woman, who was found strangled after a neighbor missed her.

My friend thinks we are. That's what family does, she says. But I'm not so sure. Yes, in a perfect world, we should forgive one another and love one another and basically be just like Jesus or Mother Theresa or Gandhi. But I'm no saint. And sometimes I like to see karma collect. If my conscious will let me. Something tells me even now that it will not.

I do wonder, though: If this person wanted nothing to do with you while they were of sound mind and body, why do you think they want you rooting around in their life now?

I guess some bridges you just have to cross when you get to them.

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