Q&A for When I Married My Mother and caring for an elderly loved one
Q: What made you decide to leave your go-go life in New York City as a Z100 DJ and voiceover artist and move to the Bible Belt to care for a mother you were not close to?
Guilt and circumstances. It was family tradition that the daughter took care of mom at the end of her life. Simultaneously, my work drastically slowed down. I decided, instead of looking for more work in New York, I’d deal with this situation with my mother and come back. New York would always be there. I also figured Mama Jo would have full blown Alzheimer’s within a year and not know who I was. At least we’d get her out of her depressing, health hazard of a house (she was a hoarder and her home was ultimately deemed uninhabitable by the fire department). I would know in my heart I did everything I could.
Q: Most people can’t stop working, or work from home, or move to their aging parent, or have a parent move in with them. What do you say to someone in that situation?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Some elderly people like assisted living facilities, even blossom in them. But try to talk about this before you need to. Look into a Long Term Care policy. They may not be as expensive as you think. My mother bought a modest one in her late seventies that was extremely helpful. One thing I can tell you: You never know how something will turn out until you do it. It may not be as bad as you think.
I’ve now heard so many stories of others doing what I did and having the same positive, transformational results. The word “gift” is often used, and they’re not talking about their inheritance either, though caring for an elderly parent is one way to preserve an estate so it doesn’t all go to a nursing home. It feels like there’s a growing need for people to reconnect with a family they lost while pursuing personal and professional dreams. Someone once said, “You spend half of your life getting away from home and the other half getting back.” That’s what this felt like to me.
Q: What if the person refuses to go along with any plan of action?
Often when an elderly person says they’re fine and you know they’re not, they’re terrified. It can be nearly impossible to uproot them, especially if they’re a hoarder. The Department of Social Services can be brought in if they deem him or her an endangerment to themselves. Or if whomever they’re living with, even their spouse, is not taking proper care of them.
Do your best to keep their house in good condition. If the value falls, it affects the whole neighborhood. Would you like that to happen to you? If this is occurring near you, say something – gently but firmly – to the family. Do it anonymously if you must. They may be desperately waiting for an external nudge to step up to the plate. For me, it was when my mother’s next-door neighbor emailed me: “I fear she’ll soon be with God.”
Q: What are some basic tips you can give someone in a 24/7 caregiving situation?
Watch your words. The way you speak, speaks volumes. Avoid talking about an elderly person in the third person in front of them as if they weren’t there. Don’t yell if they’re not deaf, or speak to them like they’re five years-old. If they have dementia, try not to say “Do you remember” or “Don’t you remember?” Replace “Let me help you” with “What would you like me to do?” Be gentle but firm in your communication, not condescending.
Mi Casa es Su Casa. Integrate their belongings with yours and call it “our home,” not “my home.” Ideally, they shouldn’t have to negotiate stairs, or step over the side of a bathtub to get into the shower. A walk-in shower, with hand railings inside and out, is a big help. Keep floors uncluttered. A fall can have disastrous results.
Embrace Curiosity. Take this golden opportunity to learn as much as you can about the person you are caring for. You will learn a lot about yourself, as well. Go through photo albums and write down anything the person in your care remembers. Read old letters. Stir up their fondest memories. Maintain contact with their friends. It will widen your view of life and warm your heart, too.
Stress Busters. From yoga and meditation, to support groups, to anti-anxiety medications like Ativan that can be used on an as-needed basis, find what works for you to diffuse the perfectly normal anguish you are bound to feel if you love the person in decline.
There But For The Grace of God Go I. If you’re ever unsure about what to do, ask yourself: How would I like to be treated if I were in their place? It will usually answer any questions you may have.
Q: One of the prominent themes of your book is selfishness vs. selflessness. How did you balance the two? Or did one win out over the other?
I said to myself from the beginning and throughout the process: this is temporary. That helped a lot. One of the reasons it did work out so well is that we both surrendered. She let me take care of her and I dedicated myself to taking care of her. We both gave up our former lives and forged a new one, in a new place, together. My “sacrifice” ended up being anything but that. I gained a new, rich, interesting life completely different from the one I’d had in New York.
I now have bragging to winning Best Cookie and Best Overall Yummy Treat at the Oak Ridge Country Fair. I perfected the recipe caring for my mother who, I discovered, was quite the cookie monster. If you had told me I’d be winning baking contests as a result of caring for Mama Jo I would have thought you were nuts.
Q: There’s a term for what you did: The Daughter Track, a woman who leaves work or reduces her hours so she can care for an elderly parent. What are the financial ramifications of this decision?
Anywhere from bad to catastrophic. A lot of companies offer day care, maternity leave, and time off for family emergencies. Only 7% have elder care policies in place. Overall, benefits have declined, not increased1. Plus, you have no idea how long you’ll be needed. It could be years. There’s the “anticipatory grief” you feel that is worse, in many ways, than the actual passing of a loved one. Losing a parent is unbelievably stressful. You have to cut someone going through this a lot of slack.
Once your tour of duty is over, it will be harder to resume working, especially in this economy, especially if you’re over 50. But it’s not impossible. What’s impossible is bringing back that person. This was my last chance to be with my mother. I had faith everything would work out. Somehow, it has.
Q: Why is caregiving more on the woman (daughter/daughter-in-law/wife)?
I think men are more uncomfortable seeing their parents in a vulnerable state. And a son “toileting” his mother makes everyone uneasy. It’s just the way it is. But like childrearing, they should step up to the plate in whatever way they can. Absolutely. If they can’t help literally, then they should help financially.
Q: Writing your memoir about the experience probably wasn’t as easy as it looks.
That’s an understatement! I’m the 15 year overnight success. I started writing in earnest in the mid-1990s, mainly novels. So I had laid the foundation as a long-form storyteller. While caring for Mama Jo, I heard “This is your next book” many times. I wasn’t convinced. People have a hard enough time facing the loss of their own mother. Why would they want to read about the decline of someone else’s? I’m happy to say that hasn’t been the case. The “your-book-changed-my-life” emails have blown me away. A lot of people in difficult relationships with their parents or step-parents want to love them. My story has shown them ways to take that first step. It’s one of the best parts of this experience.
Q: What did you learn about Mother/Daughter relationships?
They’re very complicated and very simple. But if you’re not right with your Mama, you’re probably not going to be right with anyone.
Q:What happened to the doll collection?
I can’t believe how much I changed my tune on that subject. I fell so in love with my mother’s “little people” that I kept all 700+ of them together for over six years after she died. It was extremely difficult to get to the place inside where I could find forever homes for them. It’s probably my next book – the dolls and all that’s happened since her passing. I now have an internet stop called Mama Jo’s House of Dolls. There’s also a Facebook page under that name so buyers can post photos of the dolls and they can stay together virtually. They can even friend each other! I feel like the collection is so much bigger now that it’s all over the world. Though a lot of work, it’s also injected much-needed silly, girl fun into my life. I truly enjoy connecting with other doll people – yes, I’m a doll person now – and especially sending a doll off to a new “mom.” It feels like the final act of caregiving for Mama Jo. Browse and shop to your heart’s content! This is just a small part. Ask if you don’t see what you’re looking for. Click here: Mama Jo’s House Of Dolls