Maria Luisa Arriaga raised and educated three children in one of the toughest areas of the Bronx without losing them to drugs, death, or prostitution. She maintained her faith in God through adversity and was proud of having a strong Catholic faith. She felt blessed to present in marriage, two of her children and reveled in the delight of her three grandchildren. Suddenly at 83 years of age she was unable to speak clearly, repeated sentences, and constantly misplaced pocketbook and keys, invariably found in the washing machine. Although I, the eldest child, was now working in yacht brokerage for a well-known American yacht builder from Seattle, I would manage to take mother to doctor appointments, complied with accu-checks for diabetes, and lab work as ordered finding it difficult to convince the HMO primary care physician of the cognitive loss I was noticing at home. When he finally referred mom to a neurologist and vascular dementia was confirmed, I learned about Adult Day Centers, mom was enrolled, which led to the happiest time in Maria’s life while having cognitive impairment. She was picked up each morning for the ride to the center where she had lunch, took medications, participated in stimulating activities, supervision, and friendship. She would often return home proudly exhibiting new artwork which was immediately framed and hung in her bedroom. I observed how the stimulation was reducing some of the agitation and found her infinitely more peaceful.
We lived in a community where many French Canadian families would winter. Because I had a love of everything French after studying abroad for two semesters, mom and I were invited to weekends shopping tours, cooking and spontaneous dinner parties with our new Canadian friends. In fact, for Maria’s 85th birthday, she was surprised with a lovely cookout party, complete with gifts, barbque, and a home made birthday cake. To her delight, Happy Birthday was even sung to her in three different languages! All of this stimulation led to a much better quality of life. A neighbor gave mom a Shitzu named Jimmy whom mom adored! Maria, who never concerned herself with fancy clothing, now suddenly started dressing up for clubhouse parties and reveled in the attention and camaraderie she had found.
The problems began however, when she started walking Jimmy before I arrived from work each night and was unable to find her way home. I could see that wandering might become an issue. I was unable to concentrate at work. Often times, I couldn’t reach lovely Maria by phone. My anxiety level at work was high. I thought I was alone with this problem and one morning after taking her for fasting blood work, doctor’s exam, and driving to Denny’s for breakfast before taking her to the center, I made a right at the red and was soon pursued by Florida’s finest into the Denny’s parking lot. The ticket was issued and I remained calm, suppressing an inner frustration that life was now spiraling out of control. When breakfast was done and we arrived at the day center, a simple hello from the receptionist quickly sent me into a river of tears that wouldn’t stop. At that point, the social worker escorted me into her office offering a support system meant to prevent my complete meltdown. In fact, Stephanie, called my employer explaining why I would not be at work that day. She suggested I join a caregiver support group meeting once a week and provided a night time caregiver who would arrive after dinner so that I could attend the support group, visit neighbors, go for a walk, watch TV, or simply go to a movie now and then.
Beginning to take over management of your parent’s care can become one of the most distressing experiences of a lifetime if you are not prepared. It is much more difficult because they are our parents; we are the children. We are not supposed to be our parent’s parents.
Caring for elderly parents also can threaten the emotional health of caregivers and their families. Being the “parent of your parent” can unlock your family’s hidden dysfunctions and can reopen old sibling rivalries and conflicts. If you never really got along with your siblings, it can be even more stressful. If you do get along with them, rivalries erupt just out of feelings of guilt when one is a long distance caregiver.
Being a perfectionist, I was diligent about our daily morning ritual consisting of bathing, dressing, breakfast, medications and getting her ready for the center’s bus trip each morning. After pickup, somehow I’d manage to put a chicken in the crock pot and tidy up the house before driving to work. But I lacked concentration at work and just wasn’t able to put the brokerage deals together at the contract table, constantly worrying about mom walking the dog, getting lost, unable to find her way home. She no longer answered telephone calls when I’d call at 4pm and I was a nervous wreck at work. Neighbors were considerate escorting her back to our home when she seemed lost but she was wandering more and more often. Coworkers would say, when I was unable to get a telephone response after 4, “Olga she’s fine…..instead of driving right home tonight, just go to the beach and take a couple of deep breaths. She’ll be there when you get in.”
One night, she wasn’t home when I got there. I scoured the neighborhood looking for Maria. Although I knew she had her wanderer’s bracelet and I could call the police, I felt so guilty about having to work, unable to meet her bus at 4pm. I decided not to call and waited and waited. Finally a neighbor brought her home from her latest adventure with little Jimmy. Next morning, it happened to me as the Universe listened…..I was finally let go of my position with the yacht brokerage company, enabling me to apply for unemployment, enroll in a master’s degree program at Lynn University, and was finally home to meet the 4pm bus allowing us to walk Jimmy without the fear of having mom get lost at night. Maria would have been 99 years old today.