When Alan Mintz’s father died suddenly in Florida, there was no one there to take care of his aging and chronically ill mother. Because Mintz travelled frequently on business, the job fell to his wife, Roni.
Even though she made space in her own home for the woman who had always been such a warm and loving part of her family, nothing prepared Roni Mintz for the task of providing for her mother-in-law’s needs each week.
“She was not herself. I mean, she was a completely different person,” Mintz said. “So there was not that dialogue that I was able to have with her in the past. I didn’t know then how different it could be when you have a relatively healthy loved one who is aging. She was basically not functioning. The minute she arrived in Atlanta I knew it was going to be a difficult journey.”
Mintz recalls the first three months that her mother-in-law was in Atlanta as a very emotional time. Although there was a steady stream of visiting nurses and physical therapists to help, her mother-in-law was said to be functioning at a very low level.
She had to be fed and encouraged to eat, there were a large number of medications to administer and monitor and the elderly woman often wasn’t lucid enough to participate in many of the decisions about her future.
“It was difficult,” Mintz says, “because there was a role reversal. It was as if I had become the parent and she had become the child.”
Eventually, a nursing home in Decatur was found and some of the burden of daily care was shifted to the professional staff there, but the complexity of daily life remained.
What Mintz and her husband experienced is not unusual for the children of parents whose physical and psychological needs can change suddenly. The effects of a stroke, a serious fall or the early onset of dementia can mean a quick shift in the level of responsibility. With medical advances increasingly able to prolong life, children, who are often coping with their own advancing age, find themselves facing challenges they had never anticipated. The aid of a professional can make a big difference.
For the past 20 years, Debbie Dooley, a psychologist and geriatric care manager, has seen a steady stream of clients in need of help with family relationships. She has experienced some of that herself, with a mother who lived to be almost 100.
“We certainly understand why an adult child becomes angry or disappointed. And the parents don’t listen. I can’t tell you how many times my mother used to say to me, ‘well, I guess you’re the momma now.’ And I would always say, ‘oh no, I am not your momma, I’m your helper, I’m your care partner, I’m not your momma. I don’t need to be your momma.’ But I just wanted to be able to help her. And that softened it a little bit.”
Dooley, who still works at Jewish Family and Career Services, is now nearing retirement herself. Because she has seen what can happen without a carefully designed plan, she and her husband have just renovated their home to provide for wider doors and facilitate living on a single floor — all of it compatible with standards in the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. Considering her own plan for the years ahead, Dooley says she always keeps in mind the difficulties she’s seen in her professional life.
“We’re always looking at this goal when the adult child gets so wrapped up in the care that they’re stepping into the role of caregiver,” she says. “They are actually sometimes stepping out of the role of loving adult child. And then they receive anger and they respond with anger. Let’s just say that it can get pretty testy.”
The key, according to those with years of experience in gerontology, is to have a carefully articulated set of goals should a parent decline in their ability to take care of themselves.
Mandy Merkel, who has practiced geriatric care management for the last 23 years, learned this firsthand when she moved her mother 8,000 miles from South Africa to Atlanta and looked after her for another decade.
“We as children, we know that mom and dad are having problems. But if you dig in your heels and don’t acknowledge how difficult this is for the parent, very little will be resolved. It can be much more productive to say, ‘please just consider this for me. I’m your child. You took care of me, and now I would like to talk to you about a plan for what can happen.’”
After the experience of caring for her mother-in-law, Roni Mintz feels like she came full circle in caring, years later, for her father, Sid, who lived to be 102. Sid was a fully participating and loving partner in his care for the ten years he lived in Atlanta.
Taken together, the two experiences left Mintz with a new appreciation of the ancient biblical commandment to honor your father and mother.
“It’s like an honor to your parents, to do the best you can for them,” she said. “They gave us life, sometimes even a lovely life, and our fathers and our mothers deserve to be honored for that.”