Along with thousands of other travelers, I flew home today from Oklahoma City.
Unlike them, I wasn’t visiting for the NBA finals.
I flew to Oklahoma a week ago to help my mom with my 86-year-old father, who fell over Memorial Day weekend and fractured a vertebra. After a several-day stay in the hospital, he was sent to a rehabilitation center so that he could participate in intensive therapies—physical, occupational, and speech. Since he injured himself and entered the hospital, he has lost most of his ability to walk (because of his back brace, plus atrophying muscles), talk (weak vocal cords), and put on his glasses (weak motor control). Fortunately he is lucid, and his physical condition has been improving.
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Nevertheless, this sudden turn of events has been very hard on my mother, who’s only a few years younger than he is. There’s a lot to do, much of it stressful. For the past week, we’ve been visiting my father, tracking down nurses and doctors and therapists, meeting with care managers and lawyers and neighbors, visiting other facilities, and talking to insurance companies.
It all gives a new meaning to the name of this column, “global mama,” when you think about it a bit more expansively and in terms of long-distance caregiving. Which is probably one of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to issues such as transnational mothering in the first place.
I live in New York. My elderly parents and my younger sister, a 40-year-old woman with Down syndrome, live in Oklahoma. And she’s not getting any younger, either.
My mom is the primary caregiver for my father right now. But his recent fall and my trip have started me thinking about a lot of things. About the fact that my aging mother is caring for an increasingly infirm husband and an adult daughter with mental disabilities. About the fact that my mother and my sister are aging. About the increasingly obvious fact that in addition to being a mother of young kids, one with severe food allergies, I am also a long-distance caregiver.
I have never understood how this is going to work. To be honest, I have preferred straight-up denial, because my life feels way too complicated already. But I am starting to do what I do best when faced with complex, uncertain, and slightly terrifying challenges: write. I have started to read about eldercare issues and to process what I am reading, one sentence at a time. I have a lot to learn.
Caring for aging parents is a hot topic right now. Just take a look at the June 11 Time magazine issue, with its cover article “How to Die” by Joe Klein. Or last month’s New York magazine, with the devastating cover article by Michael Wolff: “Mom, I Love You. I Also Wish You Were Dead. And I Expect You Do, Too.” (That one nearly sent me over the edge. Wolff is one of the most brutally honest journalists I’ve ever read.) Sandra Tsing Loh recounts her own familial story in an Atlantic magazine review of three recent books about caring for aging parents, one of which I’m reading: Jane Gross’s A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents—and Ourselves. So far, it’s quite good; as a journalist, she’s a bit more measured in a genre that tends toward trafficking in “Elderschadenfreude” (pure Sandra Tsing Loh, and she hits the nail on the head). But even Gross’s story provides little to no comfort.
Gross writes with an attuned sensitivity to gender. For example, she observes that most adult children caring for elderly parents are daughters. While many are sons, the numbers aren’t equal. Just like there’s a “mommy track,” there’s a “daughter track.
But these two worlds share less than we might think, she argues. For example, she writes that while many companies have addressed (some of) the needs of working parents with programs like parental leave policies, few if any workplaces have addressed the needs of caregiving adult children with comparable policies and programs.
This depresses me. As if we’ve made enough progress on support for working families. (Have I mentioned that my own maternity leave was unpaid?) To add insult to injury, according to Gross, we’re even further behind with policies supporting nonprofessional caregivers.
The childcare paradigm doesn’t work well for the end of life. Gross points out that pregnancy and birth can generally be planned for, well in advance. (Adoption, of course, is another story.) But most end-of-life crises can’t.
Thankfully my dad fell during summer vacation. But what about when something happens during the semester? Or during a family trip? I’ve realized that I have to accept a fair amount of constant uncertainty.
Gross writes to help adult children navigate these uncertainties (she is also the founder of The New Old Age Blog at The New York Times). So far, I’m finding A Bittersweet Season helpful. I even thought about giving it to my mother, but I hesitated. The book isn’t really written for her. So I have started to look for resources for caregiving wives—another “track,” I realize, similar and yet different from the “mother” and “daughter” tracks.
All three “tracks” occur when women (still) perform caregiving work and shoulder the invisible emotional toll of caregiving—despite the way that traditional gender roles have opened up. As Peggy Orenstein writes in Flux, our world remains “half-changed”: institutions and social policies have not kept pace with how many families now live their lives. And, I would add, roles such as daughterhood and wifehood—like motherhood—carry with them gendered stereotypes and expectations. The dutiful daughter. The martyred wife. These can be damaging, particularly when others expect women to do it all, and to bear their burden silently.
In 1976, Adrienne Rich split apart the institution of motherhood from the act of mothering. The first she viewed as oppressive, the second as empowering. Other feminists and gender activists have worked to preserve mothering (or, simply, parenting) while questioning its alignment with sex and gender identity. Is it possible to do something similar with caregiving for the elderly? Do we need a movement to help enable all of us to care for our families, both those we are born with and those we choose?