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National Family Caregivers Month

When it comes to my maternal grandparents, I have been extremely lucky. My mother’s father lived to be 92. And my mother’s mother is still alive at 97. Most people don’t get to spend that much time with their grandparents and most grandparents don’t get to live such long lives. But, for my grandmother, the last few years have not been easy. And because of that, they haven’t been easy for my mom (who was caring for her full-time up until a few months ago) and for my Aunt Pat (who continues to be her live-in, full-time caregiver). While I am eternally grateful to them both for dedicating years of their retirement to keep my grandma with her family, I want to take a minute, in honor of Family Caregivers Awareness Month, to talk about how sometimes, the best, most logical choices seem like the wrong thing to do and can be the hardest choices of our lives.

Through her early to mid-90s my grandma lived a nice life. I always told people that I felt that even in her old age, her quality of life was good. She had her weekly penuckle game, got together once a month for a Women’s Luncheon with friends, was part of a crochet club, and went to mass on Sundays. Sometimes it seemed like her social life was more fulfilling than mine or my cousins who were in our 20s and 30s. But unfortunately, things couldn’t stay that way forever and in the last several years, she took a turn for the worse. My grandma started having trouble remembering things that had just happened, she asked the same questions repeatedly, and she even began doing things that were dangerous to herself or others. There were times when my mom or Aunt Pat awoke to my grandma trying to turn on the stove and cook dinner. Other times, she would try to take a bath or walk around without the use of her walker and fall, hard, on a tile floor.

It was clear to me and my cousin, whose mother is my Aunt Pat, that the caregiver burden was taking a real toll on them. According to the Administration for Community Living, research indicates that caregiving can have a significant emotional, physical, and financial toll. Caregivers can experience things like depression, anxiety, stress, and a decline in their own health. Even though my mom and Aunt Pat have three other siblings, two of whom live very nearby, they were not receiving the help and support they needed to care for their own physical, emotional, and mental health and care for my grandma at the same time. My mom never got a break for any significant amount of time. My aunt’s only “break” was going to her daughter’s (my cousin’s) house to watch her three boys under three years old. Not much of a break. And my aunt had also cared for our grandfather before his death. The toll was becoming very real, very fast. They needed professional help, but their siblings would not agree to it.

I wish I had a happy ending to share on how my family solved this issue. My mom, who faced an issue with my uncle, moved out to Colorado to be near me and my family. While this gave me peace of mind, knowing that my mother was no longer in that situation, it meant more worry about my aunt than ever before. Still, my other two aunts and one uncle would not agree to any sort of significant assistance. With my uncle being her power of attorney, there wasn’t too much we could do. It seemed one of my aunts (who does not live in the house with my grandmother) had made a promise to their father when he was nearing the end of his life, to never put their mother into a senior living facility. From the perspective of my cousin, me, my mom, and my Aunt Pat, this promise was no longer realistic and keeping my grandma at home was actually doing her a disservice. She wasn’t receiving the care she needed because no one in my family is a trained health care professional. As an added challenge my Aunt Pat, currently the sole person living in the house with my grandmother, is deaf. It was easy for my aunt to stick to her promise when she was able to go home at night to peace and quiet, without worry that her elderly mother might turn on the stove while she slept. But it wasn’t fair to put that responsibility on her sisters who knew the time had come for the next phase in my grandmother’s care.

I tell this story to point out that a caregiver’s burden is real, significant, and can be stifling. It’s to also point out that even though I am extremely thankful to those who helped my grandmother maintain her life, in her beloved home and neighborhood for so many years, sometimes being at home isn’t the best thing. So, while we sing the praise of those who sacrifice to care for a loved one, I also want to acknowledge that making the choice to seek professional help is not a less noble choice to make for the ones we care about.