Parents dependent on retirement-age children

Caregiving: Long life has its complications, not the least of which is how best to care for elders when one's own years are advanced.

Life After 50

May 06, 2001|By Liz Doup | Liz Doup,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Murray Smith had a tough decision. Who gets help first?

His mother-in-law just fell in their home. His wife, Shirley, rushed to help. But she was recovering from surgery, and the exertion was too much. She fainted.

Luckily, both women were OK. But at that moment, his dilemma was painfully clear: It can be tough caring for seniors when you're a senior yourself.

Smith is 74. His wife is 72. Her mother is 108.

The Smiths, who live in Sunrise, Fla., didn't envision a retirement spent as caregivers. But with people older than 85 now the nation's fastest-growing age group, they're hardly unique.

Never in history have so many people lived so long. As a result, the old now take care of those even older.

Bringing Mom or Dad into your home can be a bittersweet experience. On the plus side: It's your last chance to share time together and help your family as they once helped you.

"It's about love," says Sandra Blech, executive director of the Daniel Cantor Senior Center in Sunrise, Fla. "A lot of people say, 'My mother took care of me, now it's my turn to take care of her.'"

On the downside: Your time and money are increasingly precious and your own health is a concern. It can strain marriages, disrupt privacy and curtail freedom.

"Caregiving takes its toll, especially on older people," says Suzanne Mintz, president of the National Family Caregivers Association. "They can wear themselves out taking care of someone else."

For 20 years, the Smiths lived in a condo complex that was home to a mix of families and older people, so Smith could check on her mother.

Eight years ago, the Smiths, thinking of their own advancing age, moved to a retirement community.

Murray wanted to be near a golf course. Shirley wanted neighbors her age. Too frail to live alone, Scheer moved in with them. She was 100 at the time.

"My mother never thought she'd live this long," says Smith, who watches her mother as she maneuvers her walker to the sofa and sits down, unaided. "Neither did I."

The key to successful caregiving is finding that delicate balance between the caregiver's needs and those getting the care, Mintz says.

Though long past traditional retirement age, Smith and her husband helped find that balance by part-time work.

Shirley Smith is a human resources manager; Murray Smith works in mosquito control. In part, work gives them a break from caregiving duties. When the Smiths are on the job, Scheer is in adult day care.

Caregiving can bring parents and children together after decades of distance and independence.

Marcia Wolf, 67, and her mother, Sylvia Freeman, 88, hadn't lived near each other for nearly 50 years when Freeman moved in.

"I was glad she said, 'Come live with us,' " says Freeman. Three days a week, Freeman, a widow, goes to an adult day care center in Boynton Beach, Fla. That gives Marcia and husband Don, 72, time alone. After so many years apart, Wolf is happy to do it.

"I tell her, 'You took care of me. Now I'm going to take care of you,' " Wolf says.

Still, all that togetherness can strain relationships. Shirley Smith's mother is not supposed to go near the stove, for her own safety, but she does. She wants to wash dishes but can't see that they're not clean.

Mintz, head of the caregivers group, says adult children should reach out for help. Otherwise, it's easy to feel overwhelmed, resentful and exhausted.

If day care isn't an option, consider hiring an aide, she suggests. Or bring in friends or call on siblings to help.

Freddie Mae Bellamy's family uses a different tack. They divide duties equally among six daughters.

At 90, Bellamy, a widow, lives with a nephew in Fort Lauderdale. The daughters, ranging in age from 55 to 75, have split caregiving duties since September, when their mother had a stroke.

A nursing home was never considered, says daughter Mamie Smith, 73.

"I told Mama, 'you did a good job raising us,' " she says. "We were a close-knit family that always took care of each other. That's how we grew up."

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