Michelle Singletary’s The Color of Money: Choices caregivers must make

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WASHINGTON — She just wouldn’t move.

My sis­ters and I had a meet­ing with our mother to talk about her liv­ing sit­u­a­tion. It was hard to care for her when she lived in an­other state.

After two strokes, she had trou­ble walk­ing. She needed help with meal prep­a­ra­tion and bath­ing. She got some as­sis­tance from friends, but it was a strug­gle.

We were so re­lieved when our mother, 74, agreed to move in with my older sis­ter, who had pur­chased a split-level home, in part to ac­com­mo­date the pos­si­bil­ity of our mother liv­ing there. We were mak­ing plans to hire a long-term care aide.

So we set a time­frame for her to move. But the time came and went, and still she re­fused to leave her home.

We pleaded. We fussed. We dis­cussed what could hap­pen un­der var­i­ous sce­nar­ios if her health de­clined fur­ther. There were a lot of “what ifs,” one of which was: “What if there is a fire? How would you get out?”

“I’ll be all right,” she tried to re­as­sure us.

When we pushed too hard, my mother would shut down.

And then our worst fear hap­pened. An early-morn­ing fire broke out in her home. She sus­tained third- and fourth-de­gree burns over a third of her body.

My mother held on for more than two months, sur­viv­ing mul­ti­ple skin-graft sur­ger­ies. She was cared for by an amaz­ing team of med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als at the Nathan Speare Re­gional Burn Treat­ment Center at Crozer-Chester Med­i­cal Center in Penn­syl­va­nia. We had dis­cussed where to move her for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion af­ter her hos­pi­tal stay.

Then on Me­mo­rial Day, my mother died.

There are times when the guilt be­comes so heavy. Should we have pushed even harder? What could I have done dif­fer­ently to get her to rec­og­nize that she needed more help and could no lon­ger live on her own?

But my mother was strong-willed, com­pe­tent and in her right mind, so we couldn’t force her to re­lo­cate. And honestly, since she and I hadn’t been very close, I was afraid of los­ing her again if I pushed too hard. It was her mother, Big Mama, who had raised me. But over the last few years, my mother and I had re­con­nected. She was a dif­fer­ent per­son to me af­ter the strokes. Gentler. Repen­tant. We were in a good place. I wanted her to let me help her. I wanted her closer.

Like many se­niors, my mother stub­bornly clung to her in­de­pen­dence even though it put her in harm’s way. Nearly 90 per­cent of peo­ple over 65 want to stay in their home as long as pos­si­ble, ac­cord­ing to AARP.

Ideally, it is bet­ter and can be more cost-ef­fec­tive for peo­ple to age in place as long as they are phys­i­cally able. Yet there may come a time when they can’t stay.

As a care­giver, it’s scary when you get calls about falls, or a pot left burn­ing on the stove, or a home that was once pris­tine but now is grimy and dirty.

I’ve spo­ken to a lot of care­giv­ers who are frus­trated, some an­gry, oth­ers wor­ried and ex­hausted from try­ing to as­sist an aging par­ent — some­times both par­ents — from afar. Even for care­giv­ers liv­ing in the same area, it can be over­whelm­ing run­ning back and forth. Even when there’s money to hire an aide, some peo­ple’s par­ents stub­bornly refuse as­sis­tance.

I was speak­ing re­cently to a group of se­niors, and I asked them to ac­tively plan for the pos­si­bil­ity that they won’t be able to stay in their homes. Don't be stub­born, I told them. Think about the toll on the care­giver — and your re­la­tion­ship — when you refuse to move or won't let any­one come in to help.

For care­giv­ers, I can’t tell you any more than this: Keep ad­vo­cat­ing and push­ing for your par­ents to move if it’s nec­es­sary. You can eas­ily find tips from AARP, care­giv­ing.org and other el­der-care re­sources and ex­perts on how to talk to an aging par­ent about tran­si­tion­ing into an­other liv­ing sit­u­a­tion.

One of my fa­vor­ite songs is “Stand” by gos­pel art­ist Don­nie McClur­kin. “What do you do when you’ve done all you can and it seems like it’s never enough?” he sings.

If you’re a care­giver, don’t bow. Don’t give up even when there’s noth­ing else you can do.

After you’ve done all you can, you just stand.


Michelle Single­tary can be reached c/​o The Wash­ing­ton Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071 or at mi­chelle.sin­gle­tary@wash­post.com


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