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Caring for elderly parents

Sherie Holder-Olutayo

Caring for elderly parents

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Cathy Stone* (not her real name) remembers the first time it happened four years ago as if it was yesterday. The heart-wrenching call she received from a neighbour telling her that her mother was spotted walking down the highway in a bewildered state and refused to return home.
While Cathy pondered the situation as she raced to reach her mother, in her heart she didn’t want to believe that this was the beginning of the end for the vibrant, good-natured woman who had raised her.  So she shrugged it off. That was until she accused her husband of stealing money from her wallet. That was when she finally knew. The forgetfulness, walking away from home, the dazed looks where “it seems the lights are on but no one is home”, and the false accusations, were all signs of dementia and Alzheimers.
Cathy also realized that her life was about to change immeasurably. With her mother unable to live on her own, she had to move her into her home with her husband and twin seven-year-old daughters. That new living arrangement, though poised to solve a locational problem, sparked a whole new set of issues for Cathy in terms of surging costs, sleepless nights and personal and physical adjustments that had to be made.
Her mother’s deterioration accelerated so quickly and became so cumbersome that Cathy had no choice but to put her in a nursing home. She didn’t last a month there.
“I’m sure lots of people are doing it, caring for elderly relatives within the homes and nursing homes as well,” said  a local representative from the National Committee on Aging and member of BARP (Barbados Association of Retired Persons). “In many instances people have to work to support the home and these same elderly relatives.
“The truth is with a person with dementia within the home can be pretty hard on the adult caregiver, especially if the person has to go to work, and sometimes they may need outside assistance or they may have to resort to nursing homes.  But if they can be cared for in the home it is typically better.”
While every aging parent’s scenario is different, the issues for the adult children become great, because they find themselves in the unenviable position of parenting their parents.  How well adult children succeed in that role, depends on their approach to the situation.
Gloria Cobham knows this all too well.
“I guess I am different in that I do not see caring for my mother as a burden,” she says. “For me it’s a joy caring for her and something that I am happy to be able to do. I know the sacrifices she made raising us. I think what I do for her know is the least that I can do. I can never do enough to repay her.”
For many adults acknowledging that their parents even have the disease can be a difficult hurdle to accept with many often wrangling with bouts of denial. For Gloria, however this wasn’t the case.
“Because I had seen it in parents of friends of mine, I thought about it from beginning to end in terms of the progression and acceptance was easy,” says Gloria after mother was diagnosed. 
“One of the biggest positives I realized is that all of my sisters and brothers are very tolerant.  If she asks the same thing ten times we reply ten times and even my nieces show that kind of tolerance. We include her in everything we do . . . so that I think it helps with the progression of the disease.”
The disease will definitely progress, and with it the increase demands of eldercare tasks and costs. Many experts claim that adult care with supervision of ailing parents should arm themselves with as much information and talk to others who have walked that road to help prepare themselves for the journey.
“There are fleeting moments when I get a little upset seeing the very gradual change in my mum, especially when she does not remember a dear friend,” Gloria says. “And I get upset because I know of parents of other friends who had the disease and knew how they deteriorated. However she is handling it so well, that those moments don’t last long. She makes fun of herself because she is aware that her memory is going. She will tell you “I asked you that before, forgive me girl, you know the brain . . .”.
While Gloria cherishes her role that she is playing in her mother’s golden years, it forces her to face her own mortality and issues of aging.
“It does make me question what aging holds for me,” Gloria admits.  “In physical appearance as I grow older I’m so much like my mother.  I  sometimes wonder is this going to be me at 70 or 80 and sometimes I do get concerned or scared if I forget something. But I just dismiss it. I choose not to let myself go there.”
For Gloria her emphasis right now is on her mother, making sure that she is comfortable and that her descent into the darkness that Alzheimer’s will inevitable bring, will hopefully not be too traumatic.
“I often think ahead to how we are going to cope when she reaches the stage when she doesn’t remember her family,” Gloria says. “I think that will be the hardest part.”