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Taking care of a parent brings unexpected rewards

©Pam Walatka 2009

Originally appeared in the Los Altos Town Crier, 2009

I am deep in unexpected grief. My mother-in-law, who was 96 and had been living with us for 23 years, died in our home after a long decline. Her death was expected, but the depth of my grief was not. I had not realized she was one of my best friends.

Angela "Dorothy" Walatka came to live with us in 1986, after the deaths of her husband and daughter. My husband, Jerry, and I had made only one prenuptial agreement: we would take care of each other's mother when she became dependent. We both come from tight-knit families.

Over the years, when people were giving me too much credit for having a live-in elder, I protested. If they persisted, I said,"Yeah, I’m a regular Mother Fucking Teresa" Having your elder parent live with you doesn’t make you a hero. It just makes sense.

Throughout the years that Dorothy lived with us, our friends thought we were doing something heroic. The point of this story is that having a live-in elder parent is really not anywhere near as hard as people think it is, and the rewards are numerous.

Dorothy was a good friend and companion to me. Unlike my own dear family— all teachers who give advice constantly— she never gave advice. She never tried to fix me. Nor did she ever mention my failure to keep a tidy house.

I wish I had made more of an effort to tap into her abundant sense of humor – it took me too many years to realize she loved to kid around. We did have some laughs when I danced for her. If I heard a jazzy tune coming from her radio, I would go into her room and dance like crazy.

Caring for Dorothy was a part of my job, as well. A few years ago, we learned she was eligible for MediCal, independent of our own household income. At that time, we could have put her in a nursing facility at no cost to us, but we chose not to. Having her at home with us seemed more convenient for everyone involved. Two years ago, my sister-in-law, Sue, told us that In Home Support Services (IHSS), a California state-funded organization, helps to pay for caregivers. After that, I was paid, modestly, to take care of her.

When Dorothy moved in, she was only eight years older than I am now. She was depressed, and I was afraid her depression might be contagious. I figured my good life was over. After only a few months, her depression lifted. As it turned out, the years she lived with us were some of the best years of my life.

Of course, there were challenges and complications, but what human life is free from challenges and complications? And who would want such a life? Jerry and I often said, "It is amazing what you can get used to." After the first time we had to help her change soiled protective underwear, I poured myself a vodka at 10 o'clock in the morning, but eventually we got used to this hygiene challenge and others. One adapts, and learns what needs to be learned, such as the importance of rubber gloves.

Jerry and I shared the responsibilities, and we hired help. Our longtime housekeeper assisted Dorothy with bathing. An inspired caregiver came for occasional respite weekends and on quick notice in emergencies.

Dorothy's decline and death were graceful, with the immeasurable help of hospice care. Words cannot express the greatness of hospice workers – in her last month they came every day to help with nursing, hygiene and companionship.

During that month, having her here at home was 50 times easier than having her in a senior-care facility. If she had been elsewhere, we would have had to give up our regular lives and spend our days and nights camped out in the facility. With her here at home, we could keep her company and keep an eye on her without changing our normal routine. I am a writer; I work at home – for 23 years I have been able to keep her company without limiting my own work. The part I did not realize was how much she was keeping me company. I truly, deeply miss her now.

On the day of her death, when she lost consciousness, I was holding both her hands and singing her a lullaby. Bear in mind that I had just dashed in from a round of golf, even though the kind hospice aide had told me Dorothy would probably die that day. I agonized throughout the first hole, then relaxed and enjoyed myself. Of course I did not leave Dorothy alone – her hospice nurse waited for the hospice volunteer, who waited for my sister. The teamwork of my sister, Nancy, and the hospice people helped Dorothy get through the most difficult of days, as did her own innate grace.

UPDATE, 13 years later:
This solution was good for my mother in law. My mom did not want this and neither do I. Mom lived in her own home to the age of 101. I hope to live in my own home until I am in hospice.