I recently had the opportunity to speak with a fellow writer about being a caregiver and how it affects your life. I related that while it was emotionally one of the most heart-wrenching times in my life, I wouldn’t trade the four months I spent caregiving for my mother for anything in the world. She passed away 28 years ago today and I miss her dearly. I went into the experience of caregiving with the knowledge that my Mom was in her final months of living with colon cancer. I had no idea, however, how much our time together would change me. Not only did taking care of my mother bring our relationship to a whole new level, but it also gave me a completely new perspective on my own life. I didn’t realize how it would transform me until after I was years removed from that time and I had grieved my mother’s passing. Today, I’m in the midst of writing that part of my journey as a healing experience in my memoir.
In August of 2018 my 87-year-old aunt, the only surviving sibling of four in my Dad’s family, told me that she had been scammed out of $3,000, and was in a car accident after she got lost and confused and, nine hours later had no idea where her car or her license were. Our family realized her dementia had progressed and it was time for my power-of-attorney to be asserted. With my life now in California and hers in Connecticut, I knew this was going to look a lot different than the journey with my mother. In fact, caregiving for my aunt has been quite challenging.
My aunt was not ready to renounce one iota of her independence, so I set up a meeting with her lawyer (an older authoritarian she would acquiesce to), and flew back east with my sister in February of 2019 for what the lawyer termed a “will update meeting”. The attorney successfully persuaded Aunt Terrie to invoke my power-of-attorney yet she wasn’t ready to relinquish financial control. And it would take another four months of worry before she was caught driving without a license by the police and ordered by the court to stop.
Aunt Terrie is not in very good physical health; severe kyphosis has her walking with her head face down, and a botched knee replacement resulted in chronic lymphedema that prevented her from ascending the 14 stairs to her bedroom and full bathroom. Consequently, she started semi-sleeping in her recliner in front of the TV where she succumbed to persuasive QVC-type ads and ordered every cream, vitamin, and gimmick an elderly person must have to be “cured” of growing old. This out-of-control ordering, coupled with her fear of identity theft, resulted in her kitchen and dining rooms becoming filled with mountains of mail—catalogs and donation requests—that piled up in paper bags waiting to be shredded.
I convinced my aunt to let me hire a person from the Visiting Angels agency to unbury her of paper and made those arrangements from California. An attempt to get her to use taxis or the town’s senior shuttle for trips to the store, bank, post office, and doctor appointments fell on deaf ears. So after lengthy amounts of research, I hired a geriatric care manager to assist in the management of our aunt’s life. During this time I connected with my aunt’s bank and annuity companies; sent notarized powers-of-attorney and living trust documents, and began attempting to make sense of what turned out to be a nightmare of a financial situation. What I discovered was that my aunt, who had been left with a comfortable inheritance from her older sister, was now deeply in debt. She owed thousands of dollars for numerous credit cards, including an astronomical loan for a new car that she was conned into buying.
Late that June, the Visiting Angel (the 4th one our aunt hadn’t fired), found my aunt lying on her front porch after she had tripped and taken a hard fall. Aunt Terrie had fractured her elbow and dislocated four vertebrae and was taken to the hospital via ambulance. A week later, after tests were run and diagnoses made, she was transferred to a rehabilitation center at St. Mary Home in West Hartford. I flew back to Connecticut in July to see her and found that Aunt Terrie was coming along but that her cognitive function continued to decline. Her condo was in worse shape than before, with smelly garbage and recurring boxes of vitamins and creams overflowing on the bags of mail the neighbor had dumped in her living room. I had discovered exorbitant amounts of money were being deducted for car insurance (along with the loan) from her bank account, so I worked to get her car sold. CarFax thought the car had been stolen so it took quite a bit of undoing to straighten out the report. We were thankful that my aunt would physically recover somewhat, however it was obvious she would never be able to make it up the stairs without help. What’s more, after she let important things like health insurance lapse, it was clear her dementia had progressed. Unfortunately, our aunt didn’t have long term disability insurance, and her financial situation precluded at-home care.
My sister and I researched our aunt’s options, and since the rehab facility she was already in also provided long-term care, it seemed like the best choice. Not only is it a nice, well-reviewed facility, its also run by the Mercy Catholic Community; our aunt’s faith is very important to her. Subsequently, after becoming argumentative in a meeting with the geriatric care manager and social worker, the lawyer was called in once again. Terrie didn’t want to give up her condo, but after he explained her situation, she reluctantly agreed to live at St. Mary Home. Thus began the process of getting my aunt on state Medicaid. This included more in-depth forensic accounting than I ever imagined, along with the preparation of her condo for sale with the overwhelming dissemination of 40 years of stuff.
I contacted some of my aunt’s friends and planned a small 88th birthday party at the nursing home, and flew back to Connecticut for the September 26, 2019 date. I picked up my sister at BDL a few days later and we evaluated items that could stay with our aunt at the home or fly back with us. We paid utility bills and set aside important papers and items, and went to work meeting everyone needed to help sell her place; a realtor, contractor, and attorney-referred liquidator who would start cleaning out the condo after we gave him the go-ahead. After returning to California we learned the liquidator had prematurely ransacked the place and destroyed some important papers we set aside. Thankfully, the geriatric care manager and her husband stepped in and a professional consolidator was hired. Although pre-paid, the utilities were shut off for non-use and it was a chilly 40 degrees in the condo during the estate sale. At least the heat was back on when the contractor was working on repairs, but the whole process turned out to be a huge disappointment. And don’t get me started on the real estate attorney assistant who kept sending me e-documents with my name spelled wrong.
Back in California, I became so frustrated trying to manage my aunt’s bank accounts in Connecticut that I ended up closing them and opening two new ones in my California bank. The subsequent months were a constant back and forth of processing requests from the legal assistant for required statements and extraneous information the state kept asking for. And while I continued to send notarized documents everywhere, I successfully managed to raise about $100k for the non-profit where I worked. While I enjoyed my full-time job, I was incredibly stressed by the pressure of being a caregiver long-distance. The constant barrage of emails left me unable to be present for my family or myself. My self-care and exercise routines were replaced with early morning phone calls to Connecticut and soon I realized something needed to change.
In an effort to bring balance back to my life, I began a Breathe for Change Wellness Champion and Yoga Teacher training at the end of February. As the PTA wellness chair at my children’s high school, I was hoping to be a resource to teachers and students in the new wellness center and had scheduled to teach a yoga class during the opening. Who knew the world as we knew it would change and effectively shut down on March 16 due to the Coronavirus? School went virtual and although some now have in-person classes with strict protocols, most have yet to reopen. I am grateful that my Breathe For Change community went to a Zoom format and I received my certification. Mostly I’m thankful that it infused my own wellness practice and my yoga communities are on-line. Additionally, I added Pilates and swimming to my exercise routine now that I can get appointments at the re-opened town pool.
Last week, over two years after my second caregiving journey began, I received an email from the attorney’s office in Connecticut with “Approved!” typed in the subject line. I can’t begin to relate how happy and relieved I am knowing that my 89-year-old aunt is safe and secure in the nursing home in Hartford, and now covered by the state. Under normal circumstances, I would have flown there to be with her on her birthday, but I sent her a box of personal care items she needed, and my sister sent flowers. Caregiving is not always an easy job however, it’s what I would do for any member of my family. Most certainly it can be fraught with frustrations and aggravations along the way. But making sure your ailing or aging family member is safe, happy, and well-taken care of is the best gift you can give your loved one… just be sure to keep some balance in your own life while you’re taking care of them.