For ten years, Damian lived with and cared for his grandmother with dementia. He cooked for her, laid out her clothes, put lotion on her back, took her to the hairdresser, and to tea with the ladies.
Damian is my fiancé. He said that caring for his grandmother was an enlightening experience.
“Because it is the reality of life. We are all going through the process of being born, getting older, getting sick, and we will all die. Actually really experiencing that process with someone was really grounding, and really rewarding.”
Damian said his actions weren’t exactly selfless. He loved living in the small town of Chagford, England, where along with tending to his grandmother’s needs, he worked as an odd job man: fixing sinks and patching roofs and building garden paths.
But now that his grandmother has passed, his own parents, at age 73, are next in line for needing care. Since Damian’s family becomes mine when we marry, I wondered whether we will be expected to be their caregivers.
His mother, Elizabeth, said she doesn’t believe anybody should have the obligation to care for somebody unless they choose to.
It’s a relief to hear her say this. She says she has no specific expectations for any of her children, but she and Michael, Damian’s father, do believe it’s the responsibility of children to eventually care for their parents. She said it’s the right thing to do.
“When you are doing the right thing, it makes you happy,” she told me.
Doing the right thing won’t mean providing for Damian’s parents financially, because they have plenty of savings. And Elizabeth said she doesn’t want any of her children to feel obligated to take on physical day-to-day care the way Damian did for his grandmother. But she also knows when the time comes, her children will step up.
“Because we have seven children, if it becomes necessary that somebody has to take responsibility for us mentally, we’re comfortable that they will do that.”
They will do that, because that is what their family does. Damian set that precedent.
In my family, there is no precedent. I have a brother and a sister, which means there are fewer siblings then in Damian’s family to share responsibility for my parents.
My mother, Mary, said she thinks the best situation and for her and my dad, 59 and 60-years-old respectively, is to plan how and when we want to be taken care of.
She has given a lot of thought to this subject. Her father died, unexpectedly, when she was 23, and soon after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“She died twice to me, when she forgot my name and forgot my birthday and forgot who I was, she died. And then 10 years later she died again.”
Grief made it hard for my mom and her siblings to do anything but fight and for years they stayed distant from each other.
My mom said she doesn’t want this to happen with her own children, and so she would want to be put in a nursing home if she outlives my dad and can no longer maintain independence.
“I would hope and hope and pray that you would come see me and take me out and all of that stuff, because I think the saddest thing is to be alone and not have connection and not have people around you. People that love you,” she told me.
While my mom can envision herself in a nursing home, my dad says old age is not an option. He and my mom are putting my sister through college, and Dad said he’ll have to work into his 70s to re-coop that money and finance a comfortable retirement.
"I’ve earned my money, I’ve paid a lot for education and for housing and for living, and now I need to look at the last several years as the opportunity to earn what I need in order for us to survive into the future,” he said.
I get the sense that while this may be our first conversation on the topic, I’m sure it won’t be our last, especially since my parents plan for the future depends on their health and ability to keep working.
It’s a gamble that makes me nervous.
This uncertainty is the reality of life. There’s no formula for aging, or for caring for aged parents – Damian and my parents are proof of that. At this point, the best we can do is to keep this conversation going.
Written as part of WGBH News series You're Not Alone: Caring For Our Elderly.